This is Part 3 of a three-part story that focuses on the experiences of African Americans during the Jim Crow era. The first part focused on racial violence and the loss of land. Part-2 of the story focused on the violent history of African American women and children enduring rape and the long term collective psychological consequences, segregation stress syndrome. The third part of the story will focus on the historical rape of Ruby McCollum. You will hear Ruby McCollum share her story of rape, murder, and the trial that put her in a mental institution for 20-years.
By: Dr. Ruth Thompson-Miller
Ruby McCollum: Rape and Murder
The Rape of Ruby McCollum
In Ruby McCollum’s trial testimony she recalls the first time Doc Adams raped her:
“Dr. Adams came out to my house that afternoon before the morning of the beginning of this sexual relationship and he told me that afternoon, ‘I will be back in the morning as soon as I finished all of my work, I will be back and I will show you what I was talking about …’ And he came back out there [the house the] next morning about nine-thirty and took me upstairs and laid me down on the bed and began the intercourse, and when it was finished he left, and he said, ‘I will be back some other time. You call me some other time.’ I said, ‘Yes, I will.’ I didn’t call him directly or in three or four days, and so he came out to the house and I wasn’t there; when I got back he was out there, and I said, ‘I didn’t know you were coming to my house today.’ And he said, ‘You didn’t call me but I came back out her[e] for the same thing I had before.’ I said, ‘Yes, o.k.’ And he said, ‘I want you to understand this now. I am not up for any foolishness and you are not green, and if I ever have to tell you about it again you will be sorry of it.'” (Trial Transcript 1 p. 5)
Clearly, the wording that Ruby utilizes to describe the rape sounds almost mechanical, “he took me upstairs,” “he laid me down on the bed,” “he began the intercourse,” and “when it was finished he left.” In most instances, one of the places where individuals feel the safest is in the privacy of their own home. However, Doc Adams took that sense of security away from Ruby by raping her and then threatening Ruby’s life. Doc Adams warns Ruby that he is not up for foolishness and basically warns her that if he has to tell her again she will be sorry. It was clear to Ruby what the warning meant for her and her family. During the era of Jim Crow, respondents mentioned that if a man saw a woman they wanted they just took her. We see in Ruby’s statement that Doc Adams didn’t fear the police, prosecution, or Ruby’s husband, Sam. He felt he had the “paramour rights” to stop by her house, at anytime of the day, and rape her. Historically, “paramour rights” is an unwritten law that gave white men the right to a Black woman’s body regardless of her age or marital status with no consequence, a practice that has been around since the days of slavery. Ruby continues her recollection of the rapes she endured by Doc Adams. Ruby states:
“Doc Adams continued, ‘I am not afraid and I don’t want you to be afraid of it. No one is going to bother me. That is definite.’ I told him, ‘o.k.’ And that made me begin to be afraid of him. In other words, I just was so worried, I had to either yield or maybe die I suppose that was what would happen, so I couldn’t tell him no; any time he came out to my house it was all right, and he continued this for about quite a while. In 50’s was when I spoke to him this way; I said, ‘I am almost afraid.’ And he said, ‘Afr[a]id of what?’ And I said, ‘Well you know what I will be afraid of.’ He said, ‘That doesn’t make any difference.’ And I said, ‘Why not use one of those things?’ and he said, ‘What is that?’ and I said, ‘Use a diaphragm.’ He told me, ‘To hell with a diaphragm. I don’t use such things as that.’ Then later on, along about October to November, around November it was I spoke to him and told him what had happened. He said, ‘I know it. I knew it to start with. You don’t have anything to worry about.’” (Trial Transcript 1, p. 6)
The racialized traumatic event of rape is considered to be a high predictor of segregation stress syndrome (collective PTSD). In addition, Ruby is fearful that Doc Adams might kill her if she refuses him. During this era, powerful white men could rape women without impunity. As Doc Adams states, “no one is going to bother me.” Indeed, an aspect of segregation stress syndrome and the severity of the symptoms is connected with the age that the event occurred, the length of time that the events continues and the fear for one’s life. The rape generated other aspects of segregation stress syndrome a loss of trust, fearful for life and being nervous around the individual and/or members of the group that the individual belongs to that perpetrated the crime. At trial, Ruby revealed that Doc Adams first raped her in 1948 and continued to rape her until his death on Aug. 3, 1952. Doc Adams would rape her in her home and at his doctor’s office. She revealed there weren’t any set times or dates. Indeed, wealth didn’t shield Ruby and Sam McCollum from the traumatic events that occurred in Black communities.
The Murder of Doc Adams
Earlier we hear Ruby’s testimony about going to Doc Adams office and leaving the children in the car. Ruby McCollum testifies about the events of Aug. 3:
“I went to the doctor’s office, and when I first got there it was full of people. I left my two children in the car. Since it was full of people I stayed out to the car with the children for a while. Later on I went back to the office and went in and sit down. I sat there for a while and talked with some more of the people that was waiting there until the doctor came out and when he came to the door he told me to, ‘Come on in, Ruby,’ and I said, ‘O.K. I said, Are you folks ahead of me?’ and he said, ‘That is all right, you can come on in.’ I walked in and I told the doctor that I had a pain in my right shoulder or arm; that I couldn’t hardly get in and out of my clothes when I first get up in the morning. He gave me a shot of penicillin. … Then I asked him: ‘Doctor, I owe you for two calls don’t I?’ and he said, ‘Yes, and this one will make three.’ I said, ‘That will make three.’ I gave him ten dollars and he gave me back one dollar, and I put the money in my bag. Then I thought about the bill. When he came back I said, ‘Dr. Adams, a bill came out to the house for Sam for a hundred and sixteen dollars.’ Doc Adams asked, ‘Who is Sam?’ Ruby replied, ‘My husband.’ (Trial Transcript 1, p. 24).
Notice that she is still required to pay her bills to Doc Adams in spite of the fact that he is violating her human rights by raping her without consent or choice. In addition, he appears to not know the name of husband whose wife he has been raping for the last three years. Ruby’s husband is caring for his daughter and raising her child as his own. Ruby’s McCollum continues her testimony:
“He [Doc Adams] told me to get on the table. I told him well can I wait until another time and he said no, he said, ‘I want you to get up there now.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe I can’t get up there today.’ He said, ‘Yes, you can get up there today.’ Then I told him why, and he ran in to me and grabbed me and starting pounding me and he began hitting on me and beating on me with his fist, and he told me that I don’t ever intend to do anything else he asked me to do; and I told him, ‘I do whatever I can when I can.’ And he continue hitting me and then he turned around and grabbed the gun and stuck it in my stomach and I pulled it away from him and he snatched it back, and I grabbed it again and the gun went off, and it went off again, when he fell, and it went off again, and he makes out of the room and went and stood up in the door that entered into this room where the chairs are. He stood there a while and gradually he went down to the floor and he laid there flat out. He laid something like that. Anyway, when I started out by him he grabbed the gun out of my hand. When he grabbed the gun out of my hand I asked him to give me that gun, please, and he wouldn’t give it back to me right then. After a while I asked him for it again and I caught his arm that way, and I don’t know anything else that happened.” (Trial Transcript 1, p. 25).
Clearly based on the testimony of Ruby McCollum she was defending herself from the physical abuse of Doc Adams. Ruby McCollum testified, “I was just frightened and I don’t remember all that stuff. I was just frightened and I don’t remember all that stuff. That is all I remember right now.” She doesn’t recall all the events of the day that Doc Adams was killed. This is one of the symptoms of segregation stress syndrome. In addition, it is painfully clear that the traumatic events of rape, abuse, drugging and the loss of her husband took an unimaginable toll on Ruby’s mental health.
Segregation Stress Syndrome: Denial
One of the symptoms of segregation stress syndrome is denial and collective forgetting. During Ruby’s testimony she mentions, “I was frightened and I don’t remember all that stuff.” Ruby never did recall details of the event that happened on Aug. 3, 1952. In spite of Ruby’s continuous inability to “recall” the details of the events of Aug. 3, she was deemed mentally fit to stand trial. In the trial transcripts Dr. Mullah stated at the trial that he had been treating Ruby for years for depression and a nervous condition. He felt that her condition was serious enough that on two different occasions before the killing of Dr. Adams, Ruby had been hospitalized for her mental conditions. Recall earlier Ruby McCollum explains that Doc Adams frequently physically abused her if he didn’t get his way. It is not unreasonable to deduce that some of her symptoms were the result of those beatings from Doc Adams. The judge decided that based on that information Ruby McCollum was in full possession of her mental faculties and, therefore, ordered by the judge to stand trial charged with murder in the first degree.
The article exposes the long-term consequences (segregation stress syndrome) of rape for Black women in the Jim Crow South. The unwritten law of “paramour rights” enacted during slavery was still practiced in the Jim Crow South. The law sanctioned the behavior and the judicial system looked the other way. African-American woman as a collective group had no recourse if they were raped or sexually assaulted. According to Patricia Williams, in the book, Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor:
“We are the inheritors of that legacy, whether new to this world or new to this country, for it survives as powerful and invisibly reinforcing structures of thought, language, and law. Thus generalized notions of innocence and guilt have little place in the struggle for transcendence; there is no blame among the living for the dimensions of this historic crime, this national tragedy. There is, however, responsibility for never forgetting another’s history, for making real the psychic obliteration that does live on a fact in shaping relations. … Whites must take into account how much this history has projected onto blacks all criminality and all of society’s ills. It has become the means for keeping white criminality invisible.” (pg. 60-61)
Indeed, as a country until we address the human rights violations of the past and openly discuss the atrocities of Jim Crow it will be challenging to move forward. The history of Jim Crow continues to be shared with young Americans and the story is dramatically different depending on which group is discussing the history. The inaccuracies and collective memories of the survivors need to be documented and voiced for all to hear, especially young African-Americans who are not aware of the atrocities of Jim Crow. In retrospect, the survivors of Jim Crow must expose the experiences of the past. The old saying, “If you don’t remember the past you are doomed to repeat it,” is true for the era of Jim Crow.
Dr. Ruth Thompson-Miller is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton. Her research specializations are race and ethnicity, mental illness, and the elderly. She received the American Sociological Association (ASA)-National Institute of Mental Health-Minority Fellowship Award (3 years). She co-authored the book, Jim Crow’s Legacy: The Lasting Impact of Segregation (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). She has several and book chapters including in the Counseling Psychology, Sociology of Racial and Ethnic Relations, and Violence Against Women and appears in the a documentary about Ruby McCollum story, “You Belong to Me: Sex, Race, and Murder in the South.