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Pinellas film producers revisit 1952 Live Oak slaying

In 1952, Ruby McCollum, the wealthiest African-American woman in Live Oak, killed the town’s beloved doctor, a white man named Leroy Adams.

She said it was the only way she knew to end six years of rape.

The case would help show that a persistent form of bondage plagued the South for a century after the Civil War — “paramour rights,” the assumption that white men had a right to use African-American women for sex.

But this grim north Florida sequel to the history of slavery in the United States has largely been forgotten, say two producers with Pinellas County connections who are bringing the story to film — first, through a documentary showing next week in Seminole, then with a feature film directed by Hollywood veteran James Brolin.

“The goal all along has been the feature film,” said Hilary Saltzman of Quebec, a 1980 graduate of Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg. “But we had so much great history collected that we decided we had to make a documentary, too.”

Saltzman’s partner in the venture is Jude Hagin of Safety Harbor, a former Ocala film commissioner who 14 years ago purchased film rights to “Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail.” Published in 1956, the book was written by William Bradford Huie, whose “Three Lives for Mississippi” inspired the film “Mississippi Burning.”

The documentary “You Belong to Me” will tour the country, showing 5:35 p.m. next Saturday at Seminole 8 Theatres, 7990 Liberty Lane, as part of the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival. Tickets are $7 at the door.

Production on the feature film is scheduled to begin early next year, with locations in either Louisiana or Georgia standing in for the Suwannee County town of Live Oak in north Florida.

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The Adams slaying and the McCollum trial already have been the subject of books, documentaries and television specials.

What sets part “You Belong To Me” apart, Hagin and Saltzman said, is that the witnesses talk. In earlier efforts, authors and producers relied solely on newspaper archives and historians.

“You Belong To Me” features interviews with McCollum’s friends and family and the last surviving juror from the trial. The filmmakers even spoke to the daughter born by McCollum from the doctor who raped her, although she did not want to be seen on film.

Those in power in Live Oak at the time of the slaying never intended for the truth to come out, Hagin said.

“A wealthy black woman killed a respected white doctor,” she said. “This was unheard of. It was obvious this was going to be national news that could expose some dirty secrets about the town, so people sought to cover it up.”

A widespread conspiracy maintained the silence, she said.

First, local law enforcement officials cooked up a fake motive. The Ku Klux Klan intimidated residents into silence. A gag order forbade McCollum from speaking to the press. A judge upheld 38 objections to keep the facts out of court records and jailed a reporter for asking too many questions. Court testimony disappeared.

Producer Saltzman, daughter of the late James Bond film producer Harry Saltzman, credited Hagin with unlocking the full story.

“It is a true testament to Jude’s tenacity that she got this done,” Saltzman said. “She is the reason everyone was willing to talk.”

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The book is a moving account, Hagin said, but feels incomplete without the words of those who were there.

“I needed their memories to properly tell the story,” she said.

McCollum died in 1992 so Hagin sought out her surviving friends and family.

She was told by academics she would never succeed. The family rebuffed earlier outreach because they didn’t want to be forever linked to the scandal.

The people of Live Oak wanted to pretend it never happened.

But Hagin said she never took no for an answer. For 12 years, she sent letters, made phone calls and showed up on doorsteps uninvited.

“Her authentic desire to tell the true story won people over,” Saltzman said. “She really cares about Ruby McCollum and that shows.”

Hagin said those who finally agreed to talk were relieved to do so. Suppressing their memories and thoughts for so many years had become an emotional burden.

“One family member told me that they were glad they would not have to die without ever talking about it,” Hagin said. “Everyone seemed so eager to talk about Ruby and her life.”

McCollum was born into a well-to-do family in Zuber, near Ocala.

In 1931 she married Sam McCollum, whose affluent family is known for building McCollum Hall in Fort Myers, an entertainment venue where Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King and other performers appeared.

Sam McCollum, however, found his fortune in bolita, the illegal prelude to the modern day lottery.

He was the considered one of the top African-American bolita men in Florida. He owned one of the largest homes in Live Oak, the county seat of Suwannee County near the Georgia border. He had a farm outside the town.

Sam McCollum was also a churchgoer and local philanthropist.

But none of this could shield his wife from the scourge of paramour rights.

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Leroy Adams was Sam McCollum’s counterpart in the white community of Live Oak — a physician who treated the poor of all races for free, if need be, and loaned money without asking for repayment.

In 1952, Adams won a seat in the Florida Senate.

Soon after, he was dead.

One day, Ruby McCollum parked her Chrysler in front of Adams’ office, left her children in the car, casually walked inside and shot the doctor four times.

The made-up motive was an argument over a doctor bill.

But people in Live Oak knew money was never an issue for the McCollum family, Hagin said.

“Everyone knew the truth,” she said. “She killed him due to a leftover legacy from the slave trade days of a white man’s right to a black woman’s body. That man had been raping and abusing her for six years and her husband could do nothing.”

The day after the slaying, McCollum’s husband is said to have died from a heart attack. Some people suspected, though, that he committed suicide to avoid a likely lynching.

“Blacks in Florida had a higher chance of being lynched than in any other state,” producer Saltzman said. “The KKK used to parade through the Live Oak downtown area.”

Ruby McCollum would not be silenced, though, even as the corrupt local legal system used all its tricks.

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Aside from the bald-faced bias against the defense, the disappearance of records and the intimidation, the court also prohibited the jury from looking at McCollum’s biracial daughter.

McCollum never denied killing the doctor, testifying that she did it because she was raped again and again.

Her words became public through reports by a journalist from Pittsburgh, Zora Neale Hurston, who more than a decade earlier had written the Florida novel that became a seminal work of African-American literature, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

The all-white jury, including friends of the doctor, convicted McCollum of first-degree murder. But the verdict was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court because the first trial’s presiding judge was not present at the jury’s inspection of the scene of the crime.

Author William Bradford Huie attended the second trial, intending to write McCollum’s story as his next book.

But when he tried to have the gag order lifted to interview her, he was held in contempt and spent a night in jail.

McCollum was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial again and was acquitted of the charges.

“This meant she could not testify again,” Hagin said. “She never again spoke about what happened.”

She was committed to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, where she lived until her release in 1974.

She always said she had no memory of the doctor, the rape or the slaying, up until the day she died 18 years later.

Portions of McCollum’s testimony about the rape, stored in the courthouse, were lost.

Books on the slaying disappeared from the local library, Hagin said.

“I think a lot of people wanted it to go away,” she said. “But I couldn’t let it drop from the day I learned her tale 14 years ago. Something about it got inside my head and told me to tell everyone how she had been wronged.”

 

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