Three local producers set out on a nearly impossible quest to discover the truth behind an old tale of murder, race and sex in Jim Crow Florida. It was pure passion that drove them as they told Ruby’s story in their documentary film, You Belong To Me.
On a Sunday morning, August 3, 1952, Ruby McCollum, who was the richest African-American woman in Suwannee County and had grown up in Marion County, walked into the office of sainted white physician Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams and shot him four times with a revolver.
Rumors resounded. Was Ruby, as the story goes, arguing over an unpaid medical bill? Was Ruby his lover? Or was it something more sinister. There were whispers and accusations that the good doctor may have raped Ruby.Was Ruby’s child, Loretta, his daughter?
The gunshots that rattled the city of Live Oak, Florida, on that fateful day still shake the town’s halls, but the name Ruby McCollum is but a whisper on the townspeople’s lips. Until now.
“This was the Florida before NASA, before Disney and before the Interstate system,” says Tameka Hobbs, a Florida Memorial University professor of history.
In the 1950s, it was scandalous for a white man and a black woman to be together. There was no Civil Rights Act or Martin Luther King, Jr. There was no Rosa Parks or Malcolm X.
The schools weren’t yet desegregated, and separate sections of towns existed. This was the government-sanctioned racial oppression present in the United States. This was the Jim Crow South.
Ruby’s story has been told many times before through books and articles, but film producer Jude Hagin believed there may be more to the story than originally reported.
The Planning Stages
former film commissioner for Ocala/Marion County, often had regular meetings with the late Dr. James Haskins, an English professor at the University of Florida. During one of their meetings, he handed her a book and told her, “This story needs to be told.”
The book was Ruby McCollum: Woman in the Suwannee Jail by William Bradford Huie. Upon returning home, Jude read the book in one sitting.
The story was too farfetched, according to Jude. Huie detailed that Ruby and Dr. Adams had a consensual relationship and that she loved him, that Ruby was drugged by Dr. Adams with daily shots to manage stress and an unpaid medical bill did exist that ultimately lead to the confrontation. Immediately, something didn’t sit right with Jude.
“I could not get that into my head,” she said. “I could not wrap my head around the notion that an African-American woman in 1952 would willingly have a relationship with a town’s sainted physician.”
With the book still fresh on her mind, Jude, who now lives near Tampa, made a trip back to Ocala to meet a friend of more than 20 years, Kitty Potapow. She passed the book to Kitty, former president of the film commission for Ocala/Marion County, who agreed with Jude’s opinion of the story.
What would eventually become the 14-year journey of creating You Belong To Me had entered the planning stages. The pair sat in Kitty’s dining room and decided to tell the story through a feature film. They contacted William Bradford Huie’s (the author of the original book) attorney and were able to secure the option to make the book into a film.
And then, everything changed. Funding fell through, Kitty’s husband fell ill and the process slowed. A well-known philanthropist around the Ocala area, Kitty put her life on hold, including their fledgling project, to be at her husband’s side.
It was around that same time that Hilary Saltzman, an esteemed producer and writer, met Jude and joined the project’s team. After three years of personal research in the Live Oak area, what Jude and Hilary uncovered wasn’t something fit for a feature film. Instead, it was decided that a documentary along with a feature film would be produced to detail Ruby’s life.
“We were uncovering some historical pieces to a puzzle that had been a mystery to many for many years,” Hilary says. “We felt like it was our duty to do something to share all this knowledge we were gathering.”
In 2012, Jude decided to contact Kitty and get her opinion on making a documentary before making the feature film. After years of illness, her husband, Michael, had passed away in February 2011.
“This documentary would not have been made had it not been for Kitty’s passion and recognition that this story had to be told,” says Jude. “It is a tribute to her late husband, Michael. After his death, it was Kitty’s idea to start production on the documentary after a period of mourning.”
So all three producers sat around Kitty’s dining room table once again, diligently planning an outline and reaching out to people in the documentary business. Funding wasn’t easy to come by, just like with the feature film, so Kitty generously funded the documentary herself.
Hilary contacted an old friend, John Cork, who worked with EON Productions on the James Bond films. John and Hilary met when he was interviewing her for a story on her father, Harry Saltzman, producer of the first nine James Bond films. After hearing Ruby’s story, John Cork signed on as director.
The team was ready.
Making The Documentary
“Before we decided to do the documentary we had been told that our safety might be in jeopardy if we went to Live Oak,” Jude recalls.
The Ku Klux Klan’s presence from the 1950s still lingers, especially in small, Southern towns. But when the team arrived in Live Oak, they felt anything but in danger. Of course, that didn’t mean they were welcomed with open arms, either.
The African-American community didn’t want to open any old wounds, and the white community didn’t want anyone to think Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams was anything but their beloved physician.
Sam McCollum, Jr., the son of Ruby and her husband, who resided in his childhood home until his death in December 2014, declined to meet with the film crew, not wanting to talk about his mother. Loretta McCollum, the alleged illegitimate child of Dr. Adams and Ruby, lives in New Jersey and also declined to speak with them. In fact, no one in the family wanted to open up at first.
And the documentary could have ended there, except Jude was dedicated to having everyone’s memories of the events represented. She let them know the film was not a slight at the family but a guiding light toward the truth of what really occurred.
“We didn’t want to make a film that was a judgment,” Hilary says. “We wanted to make a film that gave a voice to everyone that had been impacted and experienced this terrible tragedy.”
If there was a public record, the team read it. If there was a location to visit, they visited. If there was someone to talk to, they scheduled a meeting. The McCollum family; the Adams family; if they were in Live Oak in the ‘50s, Jude and her team spoke with them.
Even when Charles Hall, the undertaker in Live Oak during the ‘50s, didn’t want to keep his interview, Jude got it. She sat on his front porch for hours waiting for him to arrive home.
“He was very, very angry that I was still there digging up the dirt,” Jude says. ‘He really didn’t want me to find any information that might make him look bad.”
Charles Hall was involved with an illegal gambling ring operated by Sam McCollum, Ruby’s husband, of which Dr. Adams—and a majority of the town—was involved with as well. The gambling ring brought in a great deal of money for Sam: He had to pay off the cops and Dr. Adams forced himself on his payroll.
And none of this was in Huie’s book.
When Jude sat down with Charles Hall, he gave her conflicting information from what had been gathered. According to Charles Hall, Sam McCollum did not die of a heart attack while in Ocala the day after Dr. Adams was shot, as the public record stated. In fact, Sam knew his life was over the second the bullet left the chamber of Ruby’s gun, so, according to Charles Hall, he took all his heart medication forcing a fatal heart attack while at Ruby’s mother’s house, where he had taken their four children for safekeeping.
With Jude’s dedication to get the story, the whispers around Live Oak about Ruby began to turn into talk and that talk began to change the story the public had grown accustomed to. Jude, the producers and John Cork with his team were on a mission to reveal the truth.
And there was an abundance of information Jude uncovered: The Suwannee Democrat began threatening to release information on Sam McCollum’s gambling ring, which put stress on Ruby and caused her to enter Brewster, an African-American hospital in Jacksonville. At that time, Dr. Adams also began treating Ruby for stress, possibly with daily injections.
She would be readmitted to Brewster a few more times: When Dr. Adams’ son died and when Dr. Adams won the primary race for the state senate. The stress was just too much for her.
Most importantly, Jude found that Dr. Adams was not the saint everyone thought he was. Not only was he part of the gambling ring, he also forged his way into medical school and falsified records about tenants on his family farm to receive government aid.
What is known is that on August 3, 1952, Ruby walked into Dr. Adams’ office, shot him four times with a revolver, got back into her car and drove her children home. The reason, public record stated, was that they argued over an unpaid medical bill, but Ruby said in multiple notes and letters that she shot him to escape because he wouldn’t agree to leave her alone, that Dr. Adams forced himself on her over a period of years and that Loretta was his child.
During the trial, which was presided over by a judge who also happened to be a pallbearer at Dr. Adams’ funeral, Ruby tried to testify her reasoning for shooting Dr. Adams, but any effort to introduce evidence was objected to by the prosecution. The jury was made up of all white men, some of whom had been Dr. Adams’ patients.
According to Curtis Aue, an original alternate juror of the trial, the outcome of the trial was predetermined from the start.
“All the jurors knew the result of the trial before they even went to the trial, ”he says.
Ruby was eventually convicted of first degree murder in December 1952. She was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Her conviction, however, was appealed and overturned by the Florida Supreme Court due to a technicality. During her second trial, she entered a plea of insanity and was declared mentally incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the Florida State Hospital for mental patients in Chattahoochee, Florida, where she remained until her attorney successfully filed for her release in 1974 under Florida’s Baker Act.
After two years and 39 interviews, the film crew felt like the documentary would finally tell the story of what they believe really happened with Ruby McCollum.
“We don’t know exactly what [the truth] was,” Hilary says, “but we explore many different angles in the film.”
“It just seems to me that common sense will tell you that something happened to change Ruby McCollum from the beautiful, loving mother that she was to the glassy eyed, drugged individual who was carrying on with the town’s sainted physician,” Jude adds.
Whether due to the electroshock therapy or something else that she experienced while in the hospital in Chattahoochee, when Ruby was released she could no longer recall what happened. She couldn’t even remember that Loretta was Dr. Adams’ child. And the truth was silenced again.
Although no one will ever find out what really happened between Ruby and Dr. Adams, Ruby was able to spend the remainder of her life free in New Horizons Rehabilitation Center in Ocala until her death in 1992.
“I believe that nobody will ever know what really happened between Ruby McCollum and Dr. Clifford Leroy Adams,” Jude says. “Whether they were lovers, whether he forced her, whether he drugged her will never be known.
“Everyone who knows the real story is dead,” Jude adds. “Sam is dead; he died the next day. Dr. Adams is dead because Ruby shot him. And Ruby went on trial and she was silenced.”
This account was just one story from one town in one state in the whole Jim Crow era.
Thousands of African-American women felt like they “belonged” to a white man. It was a “Jim Crow Law”: If a white man wanted a black woman, he could have her. Fight against it, and you were lynched. This is what the producers believed happened to Ruby McCollum.
“You Belong To Me” hopes to become the flicker of a flame for all the “Rubys” across the nation.
“We felt an absolute duty to history in America to tell the truth about what was really happening in these townships in the South and in Florida,” Hilary says. “We hope this film is utilized for community screenings and outreach programs by schools and universities to educate and inspire others worldwide who find themselves in abusive situations to stand up for change.”
And the team isn’t finished yet. They’re attending film festivals across the nation, even the globe, and the documentary was released on video-on-demand February 1. The feature film is still in progress.
The story of Ruby McCollum will never be silenced again.
“It is wrong to kill someone,” Hilary says, “but until you know what it’s like to be a black woman in the ‘50s in the South, I don’t think anyone could know what it was like to be in her shoes. She did the only thing she could do to save herself and save her children and stood up for it, and for that, I will respect her forever.”
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