Live Oak was a small traditionalist town in Florida during the 1950s. Situated squarely in the southern United States during the end of the Jim Crow Era, Live Oak was unsurprisingly segregated by race; the town’s white population did not associate with or enjoy the company of the town’s black population. Live Oak’s mindset of segregation was a result of many years of struggle by black Americans, who, during the 1950s, still have yet to achieve the ultimate goal of peaceful integration within the rest of the United States population.
The people of Live Oak, ingrained with largely old-fashioned ideals of life on the Antebellum plantation, still “preserve a public memory” of slavery and racism through the indoctrination of its children, who are taught to believe in the validity of segregation and anti-black suppression (Boyd 1). The white people of the town thought that segregation was a good, as it strengthened the identity of Live Oak’s white community, while black individualism and voice is necessarily a hindrance to this vision. Many people ascribed to the idea that the black people of Live Oak prevented the prosperity of the rest of the population. Their upbringing greatly influenced how they think, as the white community within Live Oak constructed a sort of group mentality, in which they collaborated to restrict the rights of black people. Because of this, the white people in Live Oak during the 1950s, united by their common vision, generally pursued the suppression and silencing of their black neighbors, specifically Ruby McCollum.
Given this context of how the Live Oak white community is seemingly predisposed to mistreat its black community members due to the town’s history, Ruby McCollum’s story is not surprising. McCollum, a black woman living in Live Oak in 1952, was convicted of murdering C. LeRoy Adams, a prominent white doctor and politician from the area who had an abusive sexual relationship with McCollum. She shot and killed Adams after several months of abuse, as she believed her situation would not improve if she confronted law enforcement regarding the issue, given the respect that C. LeRoy Adams garnered throughout the community.
Also, her account as a black woman probably would not be taken seriously because of her peers’ racial prejudices. The people of Live Oak, upon realizing McCollum’s murder of Adams, were quick to ostracize and sentence her, while suppressing any opportunity for her to offer her perspective on what happened.
McCollum’s suppression by her community largely occurred during her trial and sentencing. The local court in which McCollum was tried did not allow her to testify, inferring that her guilt was assumed before the trial began and that anything she had to say would simply be a waste of time for the jurors (Evans 10). McCollum was denied the opportunity to speak for herself, resulting in a weak defense.
After her conviction and sentencing, she was assigned to a mental asylum, allowing the court system to discredit anything she would say (Williams 2). Also, many journalists who came to Live Oak to write about the story were instructed by the case’s judge, Judge Hal Adams, not to publish any of their findings. Journalists might “reveal the underbelly of southern society”, as pointed out by Williams (2). One such journalist who attempted to cover McCollum’s case, William Bradford Huie, challenged that Judge Hal Adams, through his order for the press to not release information regarding the trial, was actively obstructing proper justice for McCollum (Huie 3). Miller even attempts to demonstrate that Judge Adams was corrupt and unworthy of making legal decisions do to his numerous failures to respect the precedence of sentencing in previous trials (1). Because the case could largely not be covered by the media due to Judge Adams’ orders, the legitimacy of the trial is still questioned because no one concretely knows how the trial proceeded.
Judge Adams acts as a representative for the white people of Live Oak, exemplifying how McCollum’s community obstructed her opportunity to a fair trial, leaving much room for suspicion over the motives and intentions of the townspeople. McCollum was treated as subhuman by her community during the trial, which significantly altered the trajectory of the proceedings, making her conviction without a testimony an easy decision for the all-white jury (Evans 3).
Judge Adams, a member of Live Oak’s white community who embodies the sentiments of the group mentality during the trial, points to the twisted intentions of the community. Being that the town has a strong history of anti-black sentiment, it is reasonable to conclude that Ruby McCollum, a black woman who murdered a white man, while being a crime’s perpetrator, is also a victim of racism and prejudice. In this way, McCollum has the potential to be made into a symbol, inspiring generations to work towards uprooting systemic racism within America’s criminal justice system. DaMaris Hill, who best realizes this potential within the story of Ruby McCollum, aptly and poetically details McCollum’s story to convey the struggles faced by bound women.
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DaMaris Hill’s poem entitled “Ruby McCollum” can be grouped into two sections: the first three stanzas and the last stanza. In the first three stanzas of her poem, Hill speaks to the general anti-black sentiment among the white people of Live Oak. The tone throughout these stanzas is blaming, as the community surrounding McCollum and her husband, Sam, view them as outlaws. The couple is blamed for simply existing within the community, as well as for the financial stability that they have attained. The couple’s wealth attracts “bandits” who use every opportunity they can to steal the couple’s possessions, and specifically their clothes (Hill 113). Many of the white people involved in the community’s “group mentality” are like bandits, who long to steal McCollum’s dignity and humanity.
The bandits of the community are led by McCollum’s murder victim, C. LeRoy Adams, who disrobed McCollum in a literal sense throughout their sexual relationship without her consent, just as the bandits from the poem disrobe McCollum. Through the use of bandits, Hill demonstrates that the struggles that McCollum faced liken her to being robbed by her community. In doing so, Hill is proposing the idea that incarcerated women are often victims themselves of their community, just as a McCollum, in the poem, is a victim to bandits.
In the last stanza of the poem, the focus changes from the group of bandits to the particular conflict between McCollum and C. LeRoy Adams. While Adams is a member of the community and could be grouped with the other bandits of the poem, he is instead fittingly depicted as a raccoon. The use of a raccoon as a metaphor for Adams implies that while he is a bandit in the sense that raccoons steal food scraps from homes, he is also a pest that McCollum is constantly trying to remove from her life. Adams, who peskily annoys and abuses McCollum, also metaphorically hides behind his mask of whiteness and success as a doctor and politician, just as a raccoon is masked.
The raccoon is described to be “scratching inside”, and “living within her walls”, both of which can be interpreted as references to McCollum’s unwanted sexual relationship with Adams (Hill 113). Also, just as a raccoon, as Hill says, does not retreat in the face of resistance from a broom, Adams too did not retreat from his sexual and abusive desires upon receiving resistance from McCollum. Hill also uses the imagery of the raccoon to demonstrate that just as anyone would intuitively use violent force, such as a broom, to rid their home of a raccoon, McCollum too uses force to rid her home of Adams. Hill believes, in a sense, that McCollum’s murder of Adams is justified in the same way that exterminators are justified in killing invasive pests. In this way, the last stanza of Hill’s poem completes the idea of the first three stanzas. Because McCollum is a victim of her community as demonstrated by the bandits in the first three stanzas, she ought to be justified in improving her situation through lethal means if necessary, as demonstrated by the last stanza. It is in this stanza that Hill clearly takes a stance on the side of McCollum, and takes on the role of providing her with a defense that was absent during her trial.
Within the modern-day context of incarceration, McCollum’s story and Hill’s subsequent interpretation of her story work in tandem to demonstrate that those women who commit crimes are often victims of injustices themselves. While McCollum murdered Adams and thus made him a victim of murder, Hill asserts that McCollum was actually a victim first of Adams and the entire Live Oak community. Because of this, McCollum is somewhat justified in her killing.
Hill’s interpretation of McCollum’s story can also be extended to argue that today’s incarcerated black women are victims themselves and that each one acts as a unique point of evidence as to how systemic racism still exists within the American criminal justice system. Black women are at a particularly high risk of facing complications within the United States’ criminal justice system, as both gender and racial bias may be working against them (Gross 1). In this way, McCollum’s story is not unique, but rather a specific instance among many of how black women can easily become victims of their communities.
- Boyd, Elizabeth B. “Disquiet.” H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences, July 2008, pp. 1–3. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=34358357&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Evans, Tammy. The Silencing of Ruby McCollum : Race, Class, and Gender in the South, 2006.
- Gross, Kali N., and Cheryl D. Hicks. “Introduction--Gendering the Carceral State: African
- American Women, History, and the Criminal Justice System.” Journal of African American History, vol. 100, no. 3, Summer 2015, pp. 357–365. EBSCOhost, doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.100.3.0357.
- Hill, DaMaris B. A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing : The Incarceration of African
- American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland (2019). Print.
- Huie, William Bradford. Ruby McCollum, Woman in the Suwannee Jail., 1956.
- Miller, Vivien. “‘The Last Vestige of Institutionalized Sexism’? Paternalism, Equal Rights and the Death Penalty in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Sunbelt America: The Case for Florida.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, 2004, pp. 391–424. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27557546.
- Williams, Carolyn. “The Silencing of Ruby McCollum: Race, Class, and Gender in the South.”
- Journal of Southern History, vol. 74, no. 1, Feb. 2008, pp. 234–235. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=29324676&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
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