In 1952, African American Ruby McCollum of Live Oak, Florida was tried and convicted of murdering a local white doctor whom she claimed had been forcing her to have sex with him for years. The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction due to a technicality, but McCollum was judged insane before a new trial could be convened and was placed in a state mental institution. Those who covered the trial think it was prejudicial in multiple ways, including the fact that McCollum was allowed to say little or nothing in her own defense.
I mention this because during this case, we heard the term “paramour rights,” the notion–stemming from the days of slavery–that white men could have non-consensual sex with any Black woman they wanted with little if any consequences.
Danielle L. McGuire writes in her 2004 “The Journal of American History” article, “It Was like All of Us Had Been Raped: Sexual Violence, Community Mobilization, and the African American Freedom Struggle,” Despite a growing body of literature that focuses on the roles of black and white women and the operation of gender in the movement, sexualized violence-both as a tool of oppression and as a political spur for the movement-has yet to find its place in the story of the African American freedom struggle. Rape, like lynching and murder, served as a tool of psychological and physical intimidation that expressed white male domination and buttressed white supremacy.”
My novel Conjure Woman’s Cat mentions the rape of a black woman by white males. In my fictional account, the police don’t even bother to investigate because this was, sad to say, par for the course. Black women in those days were portrayed, even in official court transcripts, as sexual Jezebels, “Nigger wenches,” and as women who liked being assaulted by white men.
A “classmate” of mine (I put the word in quotes because we didn’t know each other) was one of four men who raped an African American woman at gun and knife point. His sister was in my high school class. We knew each other, but moved in different circles, so we never discussed the crime or the impact it had upon her or the family. In the high school yearbook, X was a senior and–as such–appears wearing a black bow tie, a white jacket, and a white shirt. He was active in school activities. He didn’t look like a man who would spend the rest of his life on the sexual offender lists.
He and his sister are still alive, so I won’t mention their names or the name of the victim who has passed away. I never saw an interview with the victim or any account of long-term psychological damage after the verdict was announced. She showed great courage during the trial as she described the event and never flinched under defense attempts to paint the seven sexual encounters of the evening as what she wanted.
The first surprising fact in 1959 was that X and the three other thugs who committed the crime were arrested. The second surprising fact was that they were held in jail while awaiting trial. They had confessed, but claimed the sex was consensual, and made light of the whole thing like it was boys having fun. The biggest surprise of all is that they were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. How unusual this way for that day and time.
It was a victory, a wedge driven into the status quo, a precedent showing times might be changing, even though the rapists were out on parole within six or seven years. In Conjure Woman’s Cat, the men aren’t convicted because–in the “real life” of 1954 when the novel is set–they seldom were found guilty of anything. In those days, that was life as usual.