The Black Legion and the Wolverine Republican League

Black Legion – Part II, The Wolverine Republican League

By David Siwik – Præteritum Michigan Editor

The previous post covered the rise of the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan-type, right-wing, white-supremacist group that rose to prominence in Michigan in the 1930s.  The Legion were feared by many who had the unfortunate occasion of crossing their path, as the case of Charles Poole (discussed in the previous post) shows.  Yet, the ranks of “Legionaries” included more than secretive men who rode out at night to commit their dirty deeds.  Indeed, they had a more “respectable” front organization that held its meetings relatively out in the open.  The Wolverine Republican League, or Wolverine Republicans, functioned much like one would expect of a politically minded sodality.  They had membership, held meetings, raised money, and most importantly, recruited or advocated for political candidates and issues.

As it turns out, through the Wolverine Republicans, the Black Legion had a surprisingly substantial influence on Michigan politics.  And, while they mostly supported Republicans, a few prominent Democrats appeared to have ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republican League as well.  Holding their meetings in a former Masonic Temple turned banquet hall on the corner of Waterman and West Lafayette in southwest Detroit, the Wolverine Republicans recruited members, discussed the pressing issues of the day and held candidate screenings and political rallies.  Further legitimized by a mailing address in the Guardian Building office suite of one of Detroit’s most prominent attorneys, Wolverine Republican meetings had the appearance of benign legitimacy.  This is something the Black Legion, with its secretive nature and far-from-legal activities could never have enjoyed.

Two Michigan governors, both Republicans, Wilbur Brucker and Frank Fitzgerald had ties to the Legion through the Wolverine Republicans.

Brucker was a decorated veteran, serving in the France during the First World War, including the bloody Meuse-Argonne operation, as part of the 42nd division of the National Guard.  Despite being the son of a rather prominent Democratic congressman, after the war, Brucker became a Republican and entered office as Michigan’s 32nd Governor in 1931.  Things did not go well for his political career, as the Great Depression, already well underway, only grew worse.  The auto industry shed nearly three quarters of its workforce and the state’s unemployment rate soared to nearly 50 percent by the time he left office in 1933.  Out of this economic angst, he failed to win re-election in 1932.

This did not mean the end to Brucker’s political ambitions though, and this is where his ties to the Legion developed.  The 1932 Presidential and 1934 Mid-term elections had been utterly devastating for the national Republican Party.  Although he had no more or less to do with the economic downturn than any other President, Herbert Hoover, and eventually his Republican Party took the brunt of the blame for the collapse of the American economy.  Industrial states like Michigan were hit hardest of them all.  The Democrats swept into power among Franklin Roosevelt’s promise of a New Deal.  By 1936, however, Republicans hoped for a renewed show of force.

Clara Helen Hantel and Wilbur Brucker, Image Source: Library of Congress

In 1936, Brucker sought his return to politics and eyed the seat of fellow Republican, Senator James Couzen, as his potential inroad.  Brucker’s challenge to Couzen would begin at a meeting of the Wolverine Republicans in southwest Detroit.  In launching his campaign, Brucker expressed some of the same racialist, anti-immigrant and anti-New Deal sentiments rife among the Legion and their front organization, the League.  Brucker went on to defeat Couzens in the primary, but lost to Democrat Prentiss M. Brown in November.  His decision to launch his campaign at a Legion meeting and continued association with the organization throughout the campaign is something that few know about.  Perhaps this was all overshadowed by his more admirable appointments in the 1950s as a member of the General Counsel for the Department of Defense during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and as Secretary of the Army during the Eisenhower Administration.  Nonetheless, it is a part of his past, and a part of Michigan’s.

Frank Fitzgerald is certainly one of the most well-known Grand Ledge residents of the 20th century, having served as Governor of Michigan from 1935-37, and for two-and-a-half months of a (non-consecutive) second term before he died in office on March 16, 1939.  Fitzgerald had his links to the Legion and the League.  Anecdotally, the brother of his chief of staff was a member of the Legion.  However, much more seriously was the appointment by Fitzgerald of Harry Bennett, yes the Harry Bennett of Ford Motor Company’s “Service Department,” to the position of Commissioner of Prisons (precursor to the Department of Corrections).  Bennett, with ties to the Legion, used his position to parole men straight into the Ford Service Department.

(For readers unaware, the Ford Service Department were a group of union busting thugs whose preferred tactics included violent assaults on workers attempting to organize.  Upon becoming Ford Motor Company President, Henry Ford II sought to fire Bennett.  He gave the potentially dangerous job to Vice President John Bugas; wherein, upon delivering the notice of dismissal, he and Bennett supposedly drew pistols at one another).

The ties of these men and others, including Detroit Police Commissioner Heinrich Pickert, and Oakland County Prosecutor David C. Pence, certainly shows how prominent an organization the Black Legion were in Michigan.  Wayne County Prosecutor Duncan McCrea, a Democrat, was also believed to have had ties to Legion members, though he vehemently denied membership.  It is worth noting however that McCrea was later convicted in a bribery scandal.

Through their front organization, the Wolverine Republican League, the Legion gained support at the highest levels of local and state government.  The 1930s produced a lot of angst in America.  Experimental solutions to deep-seated economic and social problems can be seen throughout the decade.  Yet when it comes to the rise and eventual dissipation of the Black Legion, the same nativism and racism that had already long been a part of American history seems not so different from the previous decades.

Listen to David Siwik interviewed on Stateside, with Lester Graham on Michigan Radio.

The Black Legion in Michigan

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Taking the long view of American history, the decade of the 1930s looks different than those that preceded or followed. In a nation historically stubbornly resistant to change, in the 1930s, Americans experimented with new ideas and new possibilities of doing things in ways they had not done before. Some of these experiments were grand, so much so, many are still with us, including Social Security, millions of acres of forests planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and bridges, hydroelectric dams, post offices and schools, built by men and women and financed by the Federal government. Scorned by many at the time (and a not insubstantial portion of the populace to this day), nonetheless a consensus developed among the majority of Americans for a more useful expenditure of tax payer dollars, ushering in a different relationship for many with their government.

There were however other experiments, including a more sinister and ultimately deadly form of nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment that had long formed an important part of the American narrative. In Michigan, one form this took was the development of a Ku Klux Klan type secretive terrorist group with fascist sympathies known as the Black Legion. Telling their prospective recruits that the threat the working class were immigrants and union organizers, competitors for the precious few jobs remaining (bear in mind, the unemployment rate in Michigan in the 1930s was as high as 49%), the Legion drew in the disaffected and appealed in a similar way fascist political parties and leaders did to many in Europe.

It’s difficult to tell just how many men counted themselves among the Black Legion, secretive as the organization was by its nature. However, estimates run into the tens of thousands, and whatever their numbers, they made their presence known, often times in deadly ways. Armed with pistols and cloaked in black hooded robes with masks looking like something out of a 1930s pirate movie, the Legion terrorized those who it deemed a threat to the “American way.”

Black Legion Men

A list of men murdered reveals who the Legionnaires targeted. One of their first victims was George Marchuk, a communist and union organizer at Ford Motor Company, gunned down by Legionnaire thugs in 1933. John Bielak, also a union man, who attempted to organize workers at Hudson, was killed in 1934. Silas Coleman, a black construction worker was murdered by one account, because Black Legion members wanted to know what it “felt like to kill” a black man. Ultimately, the murder of Charles Poole, a Catholic who had earlier been driven out of Kentucky by the Klan, brought the group into the public knowledge, as during the trial held to hold those who killed him responsible for the crime, dozens of Legion members were named, and ultimately implemented in a slue of crimes across southeast Michigan.

Nativism, what we usually refer to nowadays as xenophobia or anti-immigrant attitudes, has long been a part of American history. Going back to outbreaks of violence against Catholics in the decades before the Civil War, and culminating in the restrictive immigration quotas passed into law in the 1910s and 1920s, America has had a history of immigrants living juxtaposed to those who would just as well see them elsewhere. Sometimes these attitudes took on deadly forms, as in the case of the Black Legion. Political parties have taken up the cloak of nativist sentiment as well. And at times, the different reactions to immigrants have blended into a difficult to distinguish amalgamation of underground terrorist organizations and overt political action.

Indeed, many of the names of Black Legionnaires brought to the attention of authorities in the case of the murder of Charles Poole included men who worked in local government positions in places such as Detroit, Pontiac, Royal Oak, Highland Park and Ecorse. The Black Legion also had more “legitimate” political connections, including through a front organization that shared many members called the Wolverine Republicans.

Our Newest Contributors!

This site is devoted to the history of Michigan as told through the individual research and writing of a number of contributors, many of whom are students at Lansing Community College.  The 2016 student pages are now added to the site and are accessed through the menus at the top of the page, each leading to another page exploring a different topic of Michigan’s past, including stories of people, companies, places, events and political movements.  Enjoy your exploration of the site and feel free to leave comments!

The Boardman, a Post-Industrial River?

Boardman River, Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Photo by David Siwik
Boardman River, Grand Traverse County, Michigan. Photo by David Siwik

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Mention Michigan industry and many people will think immediately of the southern part of the state, and for good reason.  Southern Michigan cities from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, from Benton Harbor to Detroit, while varying greatly in size, share in common an industrial heritage.  Yet the northern part of the state too saw substantial impact from America’s industrialization in the 19th century.  And a brief look at the Boardman River gives us an interesting glimpse into this part of Michigan’s economic and ecological history as well as an opportunity to track appreciable change over time.

The Boardman River is not a long stream.  It’s two branches have their headwaters near Kalkaska wherein they meet about 20 miles to the east of the stream’s outflow, Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan.  As is typical of northern Michigan, the dense forest the stream flows through provides both excellent cover for rainbow, brook and brown trout and a considerable contrast to times past.  In the late-1800s, rivers such as the Boardman saw trees, measured by the board feet, piled up along their banks, soon to be turned into homes near and far away and filling local lumber companies’ coffers with handsome profits.  In the early-20th century power companies constructed hydroelectric dams along the Boardman and other northern Michigan rivers to provide electricity to the region.

Michigan Logging. Illustration by David Siwik.
Michigan Logging. Illustration by David Siwik.

Like much of northern Michigan, resource extraction played a key role in the developing industrial economy of not only the rest of the state, but the Midwest as a whole.  Michigan copper once accounted for half the nation’s copper output.  Michigan trees helped build (and rebuild) Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and many other industrial powerhouses.  Michigan iron ore fed the steel mills located along the southern shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie, as well as Youngstown and Pittsburgh.  Northern Michigan was part of the industrial revolution which greatly increased America’s wealth and power in the nineteenth century.

Little if any of this seems an obvious thought to consider when climbing along the high banks of the Boardman River, a stream known for its excellent trout fishing, as indeed Ernest Hemingway himself discovered over 100 years ago.  (Compared to other northern Michigan streams such as the AuSable, the Boardman was spared the worst of the barren stripping of its banks).  And yet, resource extraction and economic activity are never too far away.  Logging still happens along the Boardman; however, it is not ecologically devastating as in times past.  With scientific management of forests and controlled logging, trees can be a renewable and sustainable resource.  People get paper and 2x4s, and the stream maintains its ph and temperature to support a healthy trout population.

No longer needed for power, the hydroelectric dams once constructed along the Boardman are now being removed and portions of the stream are now flowing as they once did before the days of the lumbermen and the power companies.

The past is often times viewed as better than the present.  But as it turns out, sometimes people do learn better ways of doing things from their ancestors.

The Michigan Vietnam Memorial and Hall of Justice

Michigan Vietnam Memorial and Hall of Justice, Photo by David Siwik

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Downtown Lansing has several war memorials honoring the men and women who fought for the United States.  While many of these are on the Capitol Lawn, at the other end of the state government office complex sits the most recent installation, the Michigan Vietnam Memorial.  Juxtaposed the Hall of Justice, it was dedicated on Veterans Day, 2001.  The names of all the men from Michigan who died in the conflict are on the plaques that sit along the long wall making up most of the structure.  There is also a bronze book with the names.

Overlooking the monument is the Michigan Supreme Court, housed in a building complex known as the Hall of Justice.  This modern take on neoclassical municipal architecture contains a glass dome on the outside and sits due west the State Capitol.  In addition to the Court chambers and office of the justices and clerks, the building also contains interpretive displays telling the story of Michigan’s judicial branch of government.

Michigan’s Capitol(s)

Michigan State Capitol. Photo by David Siwik

by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor

Michigan’s current state house is actually the third; the first was in Detroit (the present day Capitol Park in downtown Detroit is named accordingly), the second was located a couple blocks away from where the current building sits in downtown Lansing.

Designed by Elijah E. Myers and built between 1872 and 1878, the Michigan legislature and Governor moved into the new building on January 1, 1879, in one of the grandest celebrations ever held in Michigan.  Folks came from near and far through the cold and snowy terrain to attend the ceremonial opening of Michigan’s new house of the people. Originally lit by gas chandeliers on the inside, and gas street lamps on the outside, she has been a site to encounter in the dark of night (or early morning) in downtown Lansing ever since.  One of the attendees of the opening celebration remarked upon leaving in the evening that the building was lit up so well that it looked as if it was a great fire burning in the pitch black night.

Michigan’s capitol was the first of the state capitols constructed after the Civil War to mimic elements of style from the US Capitol in Washington, DC.  Its neoclassical architecture emphasizes, like other civic buildings constructed in nineteenth century America, the connection of American government to the democratic and republican heritage folks at the time believed Americans had inherited from ancient Greece and Rome.  The dome symbolizes the US Capitol dome, completed during the Civil War at the insistence of President Lincoln and itself a symbol of America’s new birth of freedom born out of the death and destruction of the war.

Michigan’s capitol is really two things:  a functioning office building and a giant monument to Michigan’s contribution towards preserving the Union during the Civil War.  The name of architect Elijah E. Myers plan for the building, Tuebor, is Latin for “I will defend,” and refers to Michigan’s defense of the Union during the war.  It is the motto of the state of Michigan and is on its seal and flag.  Inside the building are replicas of over 130 regimental battle flags from Michigan units who served in the war.  Outside a statue of Michigan’s Civil War Governor, Austin Blair, stands guard, looking east down Michigan Avenue.

Statue of Austin Blair in front of the Michigan State Capitol, December 2016. Photo by David Siwik

Buildings are some of the greatest things the past leaves to the future; they truly are time machines, allowing us to experience a piece of life from decades or centuries ago.

Bonus:  Statues also can seem to preserve the past.  In Capitol Park in downtown Detroit, Stevens Thomson Mason, Michigan’s first state governor, is buried.  Mason was just 24 when he took office as Governor of the new state, the youngest state governor in American history.  Mason was originally buried in New York, but re-interred at the request of his sister in Detroit at a later date.  His grave has been disturbed on at least two occasions for city construction projects and for a while the exact location was not even known.  Here is a recent photo of Capitol Park.  Mason’s statue and grave are seen towards the lower middle of the photo with the Albert building in the foreground and the David Stott, Guardian and Penobscot buildings in the background.

Capitol Park
Capitol Park, downtown Detroit. Photo by David Siwik.