Tag Archives: Tallahassee Florida

Paramour Rights, the past you seldom hear about

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n 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.

DVD About The McCollum Trial

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. In the publisher’s description of one book about the trial, McCollum is said to have murdered her “white lover” rather than killing a man she claimed had been raping her for years. The word “lover” hardly applies.

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. When they claimed they were raped in the rare instances such cases came to trial, prosecutors asked if they enjoyed it.

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.

Those commenting on the disparate approach in the criminal justice system to the rapes of black women by white males and the rapes of white women by black males consistently view sex with a black woman as a rite of passage for young white men. This was probably the case in Tallahassee in 1959. Many think that the late Senator Strom Thurmond’s “affair” with am underage black maid in his family’s house falls into the “rite of passage” or “paramour rights” category.

Few people knew about the segregationist’s black daughter until after he died. His black daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who died in 2013, was silent about her birth father for 78 years wrote and elegant and even-handed memoir (Dear Senator) in 2006 that shows the confusion and disconnect between the black sons and daughters and their white fathers who were fascinated with black women. Commentators were quick to point out that apologists for Thurmond’s relationship with the teenage black maid employed by his family called that relationship and affair rather than statutory rape or sex under duress.

After years of executing black men for raping white women, the 1959 Tallahassee trial 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.

–Malcolm

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In those days, our parents didn’t drive us to school

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Tallahassee Florida’s Leon High School – Florida Memory Photo

I probably sound like my grandfather telling a when-we-were-kids story when I say that my brothers and I walked to school from grade school through high school–or rode our bikes. School buses didn’t serve in-town neighborhoods and parents didn’t serve as chauffeurs unless a hard rain was about to fall.

High school seems to far away now, it’s possible I’ve forgotten most of it. One student drove his Model T to school. That got a lot of positive attention except when he was out starting it (with a crank, of course) on rainy days.

Heck, even the early Volkswagens could be started with a crank and were light-weight enough for football players to carry them up the steps while the owners weren’t around and leave them in a high school hallway. As you can see, there are a few steps to navigate en route to the front door.

When I was a senior, I drove a car to school once in a while. It was a 1954 Chevy that wasn’t very dependable. It used more oil than gasoline and the driver’s side window wouldn’t roll up. Even though Florida winters weren’t all that extreme, we had to put a blanket over the front end on cold nights or it wouldn’t start in the morning. My bike was more dependable, though the older I got, the more embarrassing it became to arrive on a bike and be seen putting it in the “losers’ bike rack.”

Leon High “Redcoats” band at the state capitol. Somewhere, I have a photo of us at the U.S. capitol from the year we marched in the Cherry Blossom Festival parade.

It took me about 30 minutes to walk to school; fifteen if I rode my bike. Sometimes my car would make it half way and I could talk the rest of the way in five minutes if I was lucky and 25 minutes if I wasn’t.

After all these years, I remember the names of more of the girls I had crushes on than the names of my teachers; except for the teachers who were memorable for good or bad reasons. I think I got a good education in this school, played clarinet in the band, and was in the chess club.

Leon High was large and old: the school was founded in 1871 and is considered Florida’s oldest, continually accredited high school.  The “new” building in the photograph was built by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. When I was there, we had almost 2,000 students in grades 9-12, though in years after that, the school board couldn’t decide whether the freshman belonged in the high school or the junior high school (now called a middle school <yawn>).

Getting to school progressed from not very far to farther since the grade school was the closest to my house, the junior high was right next door to the grade school, and the high school was just down the street. My brothers and I knew all these streets well since our paper routes covered a swath of neighborhoods from the high school to the north edge of town past our house. We knew every possible way of walking home.

When you were in school, did you ride a bus (school bus or city bus), walk, ride a bike, or get there in a revolving car pool of neighborhood parents?

Malcolm

Click on my name for information about my novels and short stories.

Looking back at civil rights protests with regrets

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In the 1960s, African Americans (organized in large part by CORE) picketed the two major down town Tallahassee, Florida, theaters, the bus station and numerous lunch counters because these facilities were segregated. I was out of town when this protest occurred in May 1963 at the Florida Theater. Most of the time, I was in town but stayed away from the protesters even though I supported their cause. I still regret this.

Why wasn’t I there?

  • Fear of the white hecklers who openly hobnobbed with police.
  • Fear of the KKK.
  • Fear of losing friends and becoming an outcast.
  • Worry that my father would lose his government job.
  • Worry that my mother would lose her church volunteer work positions.

At the time, these concerns were very real. Unfortunately, they are in somewhat different ways, still real today.

The late Patrician Stephens Due, a Tallahassee CORE volunteer and a student at Tallahassee’s Black college (FAMU) was at the center of many of the Tallahassee protests. She would write later in the book she co-authored with her daughter that when it came down to it, a very small minority of African Americans actively took part in sit-ins or picketing. Fewer Whites took part even though many of us always rode in the backs of city buses when there was space. That wasn’t enough.

Looking back, I’m sorry that I didn’t do more.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two novels about racism in Florida, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”