By LaKeshia N. Myers
Zora Neale Hurston once said, “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Over the past two years, violent crimes have increased across the country. When onset of the COVID-19 shut down, some quickly realized that everyone was not, “safer at home”. Rising rates of domestic abuse, the recent “#Me Too” campaign, and the countless number of women who have bravely stepped forward to call out the distasteful, predatory behaviors of men, it is safe to say, women have ushered in the twenty-first century iteration of the women’s liberation movement. The central theme of this movement could easily be called, “Breaking the Silence.” But while all women historically have been silenced, African American women have and continue to shoulder the duality of balancing their lived experiences in a tempered manner which often causes them to not speak up or risk being shut down (and shut out) when they attempt to do so.
This was exactly what happened in the case of Ruby McCollum. Ruby McCollum was a well-educated and prosperous woman living with her family in Live Oak, Florida, in the 1950s. To the naked eye, she had managed to make lemonade out of the lemons—creating a somewhat opulent existence in a small town in the segregated south. But this lifestyle came at the cost of paying for police “protection” [Ruby and her husband, Sam ran an illegal gambling business] and ultimately paying with her body in exchange for her silence. On August 3, 1952, Ruby drove to the office of Dr. C. LeRoy Adams, and fatally shot him. While some speculated the dispute was over an unpaid doctor’s bill—community members quickly whispered about the fact that Ruby was Dr. Adams’ mistress, and that he was the father of her youngest child, Loretta.
In her book, The Silencing of Ruby McCollum, author Tammy Evans states, “current explorations into silence thus work to remind us of how much more we have to learn about women’s and men’s delivery of silence, especially when history, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, and culture offer us so many silent passages, some eventually [some never] spoken or heard” (Evans, 2006). The fascinating aspects of this case were the “silent passages”—during the trial, Ruby testified in her own defense. In her brief statement, she tried to tell her story; she was a woman caught between “two guns” as she put it. While her marriage with her husband had begun to deteriorate, she was the mistress of Adams. Her youngest child was fathered by Adams and she was pregnant again—her husband had threatened to kill her if she did not abort the baby; Adams threatened to kill her if she did (Ellis, 2007).
Of interest to me in this case was the issue of paramour rights. Celebrated anthropologist and author, Zora Neale Hurston, had previously studied the practice of paramour rights in North Florida twenty years prior to the murder. In her travels, she found white men forcing “colored” women into sexual servitude, even if they were married. Hurston noted that this practice continued after the Civil War, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation making miscegenation illegal, thereby abrogating the rights of a Black woman to sue for support if her illegitimate child (Ellis, 2007). In reading the trial transcript of the McCollum case, Ruby’s testimony was objected numerous times and the judge instructed the jury to “disregard” much of her testimony. This was done to cover up the otherwise unsavory activities of the deceased doctor, but also done to further silence Ruby from speaking her truth.
As we hear the stories of women killed in domestic violence situations today, there are striking similarities. Issues of jealousy, accusations of adultery, and acrimony fuel beatings and even death. But the underpinnings of silence—of victims and communities create the perfect environment for pain to persist in plain sight. If you or someone you know needs help with domestic violence, please call the 1-800-799-7233.