You Belong to Me

Sex, Race and Murder in the South

The Ruby McCollum Story

Dr. Tammy Evans

"My name is Dr. Tammy Evans, and I wrote a book, "The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class and Gender in the South." I grew up in Live Oak. i was born in Live Oak, and the Ruby McCollum case is a case that has always puzzled and also fascinated me, which is the reason that I chose to research and write the book. I remember hearing about Ruby McCollum actually when I was a very young child. And, I had heard the name, and I asked my parents at the dinner table, I said, "Who was Ruby McCollum?" And my parents told me that I was not to talk about that."

Live Oak to me as a little girl was idyllic. It was Old South at its best. Women were beautiful, and men were kind. And they called me sugar and protected me and made sure that nothing bad ever happened to me.”

When I was growing up in Live Oak, I knew instinctively, not because anybody ever said it, but because I saw it, that segregation was not only evident, and existed in Live Oak, but it was almost organic in its nature.It was something that just was. I never questioned it, and it's, it's funny to think about, because my parents always and my friend's parents, everybody that I knew, the watchwords were, you had to be nice to everybody. Had to be very nice, and polite. That's the way I was raised.”

“And, it's ironic that those tenets were taught by adults that had domestic workers that were not allowed to use the plates and spoons in the kitchen, and brought their own cup from home to drink from. But, as far as who taught me and everybody else in Live Oak about racism, nobody did. It didn't need to be taught, because it was acted. And we learned from observation.”

"Dr. Adams was an enigma wrapped in a mystery. Dr. Adams was a multifaceted individual. On the one side of the prism, he was beloved, because he would treat individuals that were ill and not charge them, because he was a good man. A very good man. On the other side of the prism, there was a man that was profoundly cruel. He was said to not care about the people that he treated, the only reason that he did medical treatment for free was because he wanted votes."

“Whatever was missing in the Democrat's coverage, The Pittsburgh Courier made every effort to attempt to report. Uh, so they contacted Zora Neale Hurston, and sent her to Live Oak to get the true story, the real story. Zora Neale was not successful in doing that. Mostly what she did was attempt to talk to people, but by that time, and I believe from day one, minute one, the story had already been established and written, Ruby shot Dr. Adams over a medical bill, nothing more. So Zora Neale was not very successful.  She talked to several people, but as is common in Live Oak, people can talk but they don't say anything. And, that's what Zora Neale experienced in Live Oak. People were unwilling to talk to her about the case, even though she was an African American, they would not talk.

“Perhaps they were frightened, perhaps they had been told not to talk, perhaps they did not want to risk losing their jobs, their homes, or having a cross burned in their yard, we don't know. But, Zora Neale and The Pittsburgh Courier had a huge role in popularizing the Dr. Adams story, and their coverage was a little bit of blue journalism.They needed to sell newspapers, and they needed to make a profit, and so they reported what would make an exciting, salacious story.”

“In Live Oak in the '50s, black women did not shoot white men. It had never happened before, it was a crime that was unheard of,  unspeakable, which made it all the more, unbelievable. Yet, it was real, and it was true, and Live Oak knew that it was real, and that it had happened, because the newspapers nationwide would not let them believe otherwise.”

Because anything else did not fit into the reality that Live Oak knew. Black women did not shoot white men. And yet, it had happened. And it's almost as if the Democrat's voice, by ignoring the possible motive for that shooting, hoped that it would make it not exist. That they could cover it, spackle it with what they wanted to be the truth. And it's not, it's not that the Democrat was false in its reporting, it just omitted that that was unpleasant, that which could cause discord in the community, that which could have outsiders question the way things worked in Live Oak. Which for many years had been a very peaceful, calm reality where everyone knew their place, and everyone knew what side of the city they lived on, and why they did.”

“It must have been very difficult for Ruby. Before the murder, she had been someone. She had been someone special. She had had wealth and husband and family and a place. And then suddenly after the murder, she becomes a non-entity. And she struggles mightily to rebuild and reclaim and to have a voice, and she does testify at the trial, but she is silenced on so much that she wants to say, and she attempts to say, but is not allowed to say.”

“The voice that she does have comes through in the letters that she writes from jail, uh, to William Bradford Huie and to others. They are so heart-wrenching, both in their content but also in the literal handwriting, you can see it deteriorate over the years.

She is frantic to talk. She is frantic to tell her side of the story. Uh, she says that to William Bradford Huie in one of the notes, she says, I want you to come so that I can tell my story.”

“And I think that it's, it's wonderfully consistent the way the word story keeps coming up in this entire case. Entire event. Because when you hear the word story, you think fiction. And this was not a story. This was something very real.

“And, you keep hearing, I want to tell my story, when all Ruby really wanted to do was to tell her version of the truth, which, again, we'll never know what happened that day. We'll never know for a fact.” 

But, she wasn't allowed to speak. And, as far as what story came out, the story evolved exactly the way the community of Live Oak wanted it to. That was the way it went.  The issue of the medical bill is an interesting one, because witnesses recall Ruby and Dr. Adams arguing about something. And, what was said was something to the effect of, You will pay. And, the medical bill was never introduced.”

“It was never shown. And, I think that currency in this trial plays a huge role. Who is going to pay for what? And I think that the price of Ruby's testimony, it's interesting that it is an absent bill. Uh, we will never know what the bill said. We will never even know if there was a bill. But it's very symbolic, I think, that an absent bill for payment is the key that cannot be produced and is not discussed.”

The Ruby McCollum story is for us now in retrospect a story that can teach us a great deal. However, what is going to be taught is certainly not about Ruby McCollum. As much as different sources would like to say they have the answers to all of the questions that were raised during the Ruby McCollum trial, during the Ruby McCollum event and the years afterwards, when it continued to be something that was not discussed, what the case really does when we look back at Ruby McCollum, is it teaches us an awful lot about ourselves and our culture in the South and the perspective that we bring with us from that place.”

“And the perspective of 1952 is different from the perspective today. But I think that looking back on the events of 1952, out of that horrible tragedy that destroyed so many lives and hurt so many people, that some good can come from that today.”

“There are people that would say that all of the Ruby McCollum tragedy happened years ago, that we just need to forget it and move on. It destroyed so many people and hurt so many people, and it continues to have a ripple effect. But, the thing that we can take away from this, is that in the, in the larger sense, the story of our nation and the story of us as a nation of individuals, both black and white, is not answers to what happened during the murder.”

"What is important today is that we continue to ask the big questions that were not either voiced loud enough to prevent tragedy and hurt back then, but that today, if we ask them, at least we can prevent perhaps and take one small step forward in addressing issues of inequity.”

“How do we define ourselves as a nation? Do we continue to define ourselves as a divided nation of North and South, with differing views and differing values? Do we continue to sweep under the rug unpleasant, difficult questions of race and class? Or do we finally address them? Not that we can fix anything, but at least we can talk about it. And that's what didn't happen during Ruby's ordeal. There was just silence. And an established story that had been perpetuated. And, as an American, as a writer, as a woman, I don't want to perpetuate anything. I want us as a nation to not be afraid of change.”

“And not be afraid of the positive change that can happen from examining difficult very, very undefineable events. Because we can't get to answers, but we at least now can define the questions that need to be asked. And that's what I hoped to do in my book. I never believed, once I had finished with the manuscript, that I had answered anything. All I had done was become one more voice in the telling of this story.  And the language that I used and focused on in my telling of the story was not language or words at all, it was what was unsaid. And oftentimes, the most evil that can happen in the world is not from actions, it's from inaction. And I had hoped that my book would in some very small way be a catalyst for positive change, and if not positive change, then at least an awareness that was just perhaps a little bit different and a little bit deeper.”

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