For the Love of Rebecca

For the Love of Rebecca


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes





On May 12, 1936, the Klan took my mother’s parents away from her for no reason except stupidity. 

I was raised by a wounded woman, who never knew the joy of living, only the fear of dying. 

Dying at the hands of the Klan if ever the secret of her dark skin was revealed.


Rebecca Poole                                                                                                                                  Charles Poole


Rebecca’s Mother Was Passing


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For the Love of Rebecca

The Murder of Charlie Poole by the Black Legion


By Mary Teresa Coulter



As do many sagas, mine began with a knock on the door.  On a hot summer night in 1968, a faint knock on our front door woke me up.  Soon I began to hear the low rumble of voices in the night.  Two black men with wide rimmed hats sat at our table talking to my dad.  They were very serious.  My mother closed the drapes and told me to go to bed.  My dad yelled from his chair, “Fuck the neighbors.  Open that window!”  My mom slowly did and walked in the kitchen solemnly.  The men were Black Panthers, the time was the Detroit riots.  The mood was ominous.  I never saw those men again.

A few years later, I attended a summer camp program with all black kids, with the exception of two white girls from another town.  At bedtime the two white girls got to sleep in a separate room by themselves.  And I stayed with the black girls.  A black girl asked me why I wasn’t in their room.  I said I didn’t know.  I just didn’t like the white girls, I liked the black girls better.  But, I didn’t know why.  During my stay, I kissed a boy.  My brothers said, “Wait until Grandma Becky finds out that you kissed a black boy, she will have a heart attack!  Upon my arrival home from camp my mother sat me down on the couch to have a talk with me.  I was never to tell anyone I kissed that boy, especially Grandma Becky.

Similar scenes played out during my childhood and haunted my mind.  “Why were so many situations shrouded in secrecy and why did something eat at my developing young mind to clue me into some deep mystery that was unbeknownst to me?” I needed answers to this tugging in my gut.  “Something was not right.  What was it?”

Over the years, bit by bit, I would hear things that began to spell out a picture for me and an explanation to so many things I could not find reason to. I am now 42 years old and I have all the missing pieces to the puzzle.  I know why I can’t tell anyone that I kissed that black boy.  It was all for the love of my grandmother Rebecca.

I would always ask her about my grandfather.  I wanted to know who he was.  What happened to him and why we never talked about him?”  “Was he a bad man?  Did he leave her?”  She would rarely mention him or talk about it.  But from time to time I would listen from another room and hear her talking about Charlie, to my mother.  My mother would always have that same foreboding stare in her eyes.  She did not want to hear it.

I took care of my grandmother during the last ten years before she died.  Her declining mental health allowed her to speak freely about the past.  Secrets she tried to carry to her grave, melted into my ears like butter.  I was hearing the truth and I knew it.

This is what Rebecca told me when she was 81 years old.

My grandmother spent a summer at her sisters house at the same time a young man was staying with her sister as a boarder.  His name was Lowell Rushing.  He was enamored with Rebecca and fell in love, secretly.  Rebecca was married to Charlie and Charlie was the only thing that stood between Lowell and the object of his affection.  A few years later, Lowell started running with the Black Legion.  Charlie told Rebecca to tell Lowell that if he kept running with those boys something terrible might happen to him.  He better get out while he had a chance.  A few weeks later, my grandfather was dead at the hands of Lowell.

My Aunt Marcy Rushing was a gossip.  She would sit at her kitchen table with her coffee and cigarettes and loudly express her opinions for hours.  Lowell was unemployed, and sat for long hours at that same coffee table hanging on for any news of Rebecca.  My grandmother called one spring afternoon in 1936.  She and Marcy discussed the details of a recent argument that Rebecca and Charlie had.  At one point in their marriage Charlie was not working and Rebecca was.  Even though Charlie was at home, Rebecca hired a woman to baby sit for her little girl. 

Grandma said she thought that the woman liked Charlie.  She argued with Charlie about this a lot.  She was indignant with him over the fact that while the woman was at home with the child, Charlie was not out looking for work but hanging around the babysitter.  Rebecca was jealous.  She would fuss at Charlie for that past indiscretion. She would fuss at Charlie over his drinking and bar life.  She was not satisfied with him and they would argue.  When he would leave, she would pick up the phone and call her sister Marcy to pour out the details of all his failings.

When Marcy hung up the phone, she would rave on for hours about my grandfather.  On the occasion that Charles and Rebecca had a more serious fight, Lowell began to form a plan.  Her downgrading sunk deep into Lowell’s mind and soon he found his avenue.  He knew what he was to do.  Soon he would have Rebecca and no one would be the wiser.

Lowell walked to the wolverine club and spread his news of my grandparents fight.  He changed the details of a terrible argument to a terrible fight.  Soon the Clan began shadowing Charlie.  Men would show up at Rebecca’s house all hours of the day and night.  Strangers would approach her on the street.  Some would ask where Charlie was.  Some would just seem interested in her, but she knew this was bad, very bad.  “But what was it?”

The Clan knew that Charlie and Rebecca only argued.  The Clan knew that Rebecca went into the hospital to deliver her baby.  The Clan also knew that they needed to twist the truth to justify their dark actions.  They knew.  They all knew.

Rebecca’s fear for her husband’s safety grew.  She started lying about his whereabouts to everyone.  Marcy told her that certain people had heard about their fight.  Everyone was on edge.  “What did Marcy Do?”  The inevitable doom crippled them.  “Something was about to go down, but what, and when?”

This had gone on for some weeks now and when Marcy got the call that Rebecca went to the hospital, Lowell was there.  It was time.  He ran to the club and they plotted the hanging of Charlie. 

I think my grandfather knew too.  As a younger man he refused to join the Klan in Kentucky, and as my grandma said, “They ran him out.”  That is where his vagrancy charge came in.  He climbed aboard a cargo train due for Detroit, and never returned to Kentucky.

Charlie was Catholic and Rebecca was Southern Baptist.  That was a good starting point for the hatred of the Klan, but Rebecca’s beauty and contagious flirtations probably enraged them also.  “Why was such a beautiful white woman married to a Catholic.”  Not only that, but a Frenchman!”  Charlie poured out all his time and effort, trying to get into one of the motor companies around Detroit.  I don’t know what he was doing for money at the time of his death.  According to my Grandma, he was unemployed. 

According to the media, the last thing he did the day he died was drop off a high chair and shoes for his daughter Mary Lou.  The media portrayed him as working for the WPA.  He only was enrolled with their program, a program that was a welfare type program.  He was not a fancy WPA official, he was an unemployed worker on the dole.  We never will know much about who he was, because the Klan wiped out his life, past and future like thieves in the night.  All is lost.

Grandma said that Charlie visited her only once in the hospital to see his new baby girl, Nancy.  My grandfather had blondish hair and was fair skinned like my grandmother.  He sat on the edge of Rebecca’s bed and pulled a piece of his hair and said, “Look, I don’t have black hair.”  Grandma said she thinks he was referring to Lowell.  She never explained or returned comment.  She was hiding an even bigger secret.

Grandma knew what the Klan could do.  The fear was crippling to her.  She was the keeper of secrets and she never blinked at Charlie’s comment.  She never saw him again.  She knew why Nancy’s hair was black and her complexion was dark.  She was a Melungeon

The story has been written in many books and periodicals over the years.  Speculating is the best anyone could do.  Not because the Klan was shrouded in secrecy and the media reported.  But, because the Melungeons were. 

The secret my grandmother was hiding was not the fact that the baby’s father was Catholic, French, and skeptical of the paternity.  The secret my grandmother was hiding was the fact that she herself was black.  She was the product of a tri-race nationality with origins from before the 16th century in the United States.  The dark Melungeons have been passing themselves off as “Scotch-Irish” for centuries, when their real race was black, Portuguese, and sometimes Indian, sometimes, white.  My grandmother is the direct descendant of Mahala Mullins, the most infamous moonshiner at the turn of the century.

Mahala’s father Solomon Collins, was black.  Mahala was ½ black, her son James who served for the north in the Civil War and ran moonshine and was involved in one of the biggest raids on the mountains where Mahala lived was ¼ black.  His daughter Mary Jane Mullins was 1/8th black, and her daughter Rebecca Booker was 1/16th black.  Rebecca, the beautiful white woman whom the Klan defended and caused the demise of their own organization over was a black woman.  And Rebecca knew it.

They could never know why my mom was dark.  No one could know.  Not Charlie, not his family, not the reporters that forced her life on the pages of newspapers as far away as New York and Paris. 

If the Klan ever found out surely they would kill her children.  This story must die. 

Nancy and Mary Lou were sent back to Erin, Tennessee for 6 years to live with their grandmother.  Rebecca stayed in Detroit.  Worked and sent money home for the girls.  After 6 years her mother Mary Jane who was raising them decided that the girls needed their mother and she packed up her husband and grandkids and headed them to Detroit.  My grandmother never bonded with her girls as a mother.  She had been forever stunted by the Klan.  She was a shell.  An empty shell where nothing lived.  Nothing but secrets she could not tell, fear she could not shake. 

On May 12, 1936, the Klan took my mother’s parents away from her for no reason except stupidity.  I was raised by a wounded woman, who never knew the joy of living, only the fear of dying.  Dying at the hands of the Klan if ever the secret of her dark skin was revealed.

My mother Nancy, the baby Rebecca was having that fateful May was dark and she always wondered why.  When I was a little girl, she would say, she thinks she must have taken after her dad’s father since he was French, or her grandmother as she was also dark.

It wasn’t until the 1990’s when my mom spent time in Georgia that some self revelations came to the surface.  She was reading a Georgia newspaper with an article about a strange race of people around Sneedville, Tennessee.  She recognized an old photo in the article that she knew as her great grandmother.  She was curious.  My mom, Nancy, went to the Library and began research into the “Melungeons.”  She was very fascinated.  She mailed my brothers and myself copies of the articles and secrets were about to be brought to light.  The odd behavior of my grandmother was all beginning to make sense. 

One afternoon, years later, my sister-in-law called excitedly and said that my nephew was watching history’s mysteries and that our grandfather’s story was featured on it.  He taped it.  When I viewed the tape I was stopped in my tracks.  There were images of my grandfather dead in a ditch, and my tiny little grandmother grief stricken and afraid talking on the news about the murder.

Later on my kids came home from school and said that our grandfather was in their 6th grade history book.  I was stunned.  How could my tiny unassuming grandmother hide such a world wide, secret from us.  Until I pieced the grandpa story with the Melungeon story did I began to realize the deep reasons for my grandmother’s behavior.  She was protecting us from the Klan because she knew we were dark.  And she knew what they could do.

Even now, 70 years later, my family doesn’t want this story told.  They want it to die.  I heard my Aunt Mary Lou say to my mother once.  “If we don’t tell our kids, it will die with this generation.  And the cord will be cut. But, if we keep telling it over and over, the pain will just go on.”  Now I fully understand what she meant.  But, I disagree with her.  I think this is a story that should be told, over and over again.  And I think the Klan should read this story.  To know that I am black and I am not afraid!  But I do remember.

The murder of my French Catholic grandfather Charles Poole brought down the Black Legion, the guardsmen of the Ku Klux Klan, for the love of a white woman named Rebecca.  Little did they know they were in reality defending the honor of a woman with a bigger secret than her husband’s faith.  She was black, and she took that secret to her grave.  Rebecca died on the 4th of July in 1997 quietly in her bed at 83 years of age.  She was the bravest woman I never knew.

Now I understand why my mother closed the window shades that evening in 1969, and why members of the Black Panthers sat at our table, and why I couldn’t tell anyone I kissed a black boy.  I just wished I could tell my grandmother that I knew why and that I understood.  And the reason I waited until she died to tell this story is for the love of Rebecca.

Other Sites: The Murder that brought Down the Legion  / Time’s “Black Legion”

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In Black Legion (the film directed 1936 by Archie Mayo), Humphrey Bogart gives an outstanding performance as factory laborer Frank Taylor, who loses a promotion to a foreign-born coworker. Filled with hatred, Taylor joins the Black Legion, a secret white supremacist organization. The group burns down the barn of Taylor’s coworker, scaring him out of town. Thus, Taylor receives the promotion. But when Taylor is forced to spend his time recruiting new members for the Legion, he is demoted from plant foreman back to factory laborer. The Legion attacks Taylor’s new boss, making friends suspect Taylor’s involvement, while Taylor himself begins drinking heavily in a fit of self-loathing. When Taylor finally loses his job and the Legion gears up for an attack on a former friend, it appears that Taylor has hit rock bottom–with only himself to blame. This fast-paced, black and white tale of moral decay and redemption is based on the true story of the Black Legion’s condemnable actions in Michigan in the 1930s.

Warner Home Video, Running Time: 83 minutes, Not Rated, B&W, item #VVWA65273

Mary Coulter, born in Dearborn, MI May 9, 1964  (the last year of the baby boom)—Catholic, 9 brothers, no sisters; divorced, mother of 3 girls, 22 and twins 17—was a Community Columnist Port Huron Times Herald Newspaper 2000-2001 (18 published articles that year, 26 plus articles total in all, including years she was not a columnist). This was an unpaid position.  A few articles were on issues of race relations between the black and white population of Port Huron. She received two threatening hate letters from KKK members resulting from her views in those articles. She now lives and works in the Manistee-Benzie county area.

She’s in the process of writing two books.  One of which she’d like to make into a screen play: the “true” story of her grandfather’s death.  And the other she wantso title “Punchdrunk,” about the life and death of her mentally ill brother.

posted 8 January 2007

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update 19 December 2011




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Related files:    Killers of Silas Coleman    Black Legion — More Clippings    Black Legion — Doctor Billy  For the Love of Rebecca  Lynching & Racial Violence Seems Like Murder Here (book) 

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