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Proponents of H.R. 40, the so-called “Reparations Bill,” have researched historical documents and written reams of material on the sufferings of African slaves subjected to forced servitude to their Anglo masters for over 200 years, but have seemingly neglected a practice originating in the Antebellum South, and continuing into the post-Civil War Segregationist South, that could contribute to - or complicate - their arguments.
Zora Neale Hurston, the famous African-American anthropologist and writer of the Harlem Renaissance, studied a practice in the Segregationist South she referred to as “Paramour Rights,” picking up a term she encountered in the timber camps of north Florida ranging from Jacksonville through Pensacola. This unwritten law of the pre-Civil War South referred to the right of a white man to take a black woman as his concubine and force her to have his children whether she was married or not.
While not surprising during slavery, this practice continued well past the end of the Civil War, and became institutionalized in the Segregationist South, buttressed by Jim Crow legislation making miscegenation illegal, thereby removing any rights of a woman of African descent from suing her forced paramour for paternity-related issues of child support.
Regardless of the color of her skin, a woman was considered a “Negress” if she could be proven to have even a single drop of African blood coursing through her veins, so one of the first lines of defense for rape was for the man to look for evidence – however spurious – that the woman had a distant ancestor who was black.
The continuing abuse of black women by white men resulted in mixed-race offspring with no claim to a father, nor to the financial support a father would normally be expected to give to his family. A real bargain for the white man. A real tragedy for his paramour and her child.
Aside from the freedom from responsibility that black women afforded the white men who practiced this form of continuing enslavement, the practice of Paramour Rights served to “keep the Nigger in their place,” by institutionalizing legal rape of black women and psychologically castrating black men through penis entitlement. This form of sexual domination is the oldest known form of subjugation of conquered races throughout the history of mankind.
In 1952, the trial of Ruby McCollum, a wealthy African-American wife who murdered her white, physician and senator-elect lover, created the first forum for a “Negress” to witness in her own defense regarding her abuse by a white man who forced her to bear his children.
Noting that this explosive trial was a first in American history, Zora Neale Hurston, reporting for The Pittsburgh Courier, drew a parallel between Ruby and her countless black paramour equivalents in the Segregationist South who were victimized by white males seeking to gain power and control by subjugating black females.
In my recent book, The Trial of Ruby McCollum: the true-crime story that shook the foundations of the Segregationist South, the relationship between Ruby McCollum and Leroy Adams, her abusive lover, is examined from the standpoint of how this case contributed to the death of Paramour Rights in this country.
The reception of this book in the area of north Florida where this drama played itself out is predictable. After half a century it is considered – in the words of a storeowner who cancelled a book signing – “too sensitive” for many to have retold.
Ironically, the attitude of north Florida locals to the story is similar to that of Judge Hal W. Adams who tried the case and revoked Ruby’s 1st Amendment Rights for fear that what she might have to say would “subject the community to embarrassment.”
How many of us have watched TV to see the faces of criminals when they are arrested for such crimes as stock fraud or child molestation? Yes, they do all look embarrassed. That should cause no wonder. What should concern us, though, is that they not be allowed to continue to deny their crimes, like so many neo-Nazis sweeping aside their shameful legacy with lies, deceit and revisionist history.
Unfortunately, for those who want reparations for all of this, I can offer little hope. The sheer mechanics of assigning a price tag to slavery is a monumental task in and of itself, let alone the well nigh impossible task of determining who will benefit because of the passing of time and the mixing of races to the point that few have proof, or even knowledge, of their slave lineage.
This is not to say that H.R. 40 should be a dead issue – it should not be. Opening this chapter in history up for public examination and discourse is an obligation, a duty, for our Congressmen. The denial of this duty is a shame upon our nation, and will continue to be a spiritual albatross until it is resolved.
Dr. Ellis was featured speaker at the 2003 Miami Book Fair. He can be reached at email@example.com.