By Murfee Faulk
At the age of five, Michael McCoy watched from the front porch of his family’s house in Cayce, S.C., as an uncle lifted a large paper grocery bag from the trunk of a car, threw it in the front lawn and set it ablaze. As the flames rose, a second uncle launched into an equally fiery tirade about fire as the only proper treatment for such “whore stuff.”
As the paper bag burned away, Michael recognized its contents: a wrestling outfit, a robe with the words “Sweet Georgia Brown” embroidered on the back, and a large glittering belt given to the Texas state women’s wrestling champion. The next day, when Michael walked past the ashes, all that remained was the belt’s large metallic faceplate and the stench of burned polyester.
He had played with them just a few days before. He had been proud of them. After all, they had belonged to his mother, a famous wrestler from the 1960s.
Last April, Michael talked about this memory of his mother at a coffee shop in downtown Augusta. Today he owns his own contracting business based in Edgefield, S.C., and was recently ordained as a Pentecostal minister. But all he can bring of his mother’s history is a set of old wrestling magazines and a stack of promotional photographs of Sweet Georgia Brown, whose real name was Susie Mae McCoy.
When Susie Mae died of breast cancer in 1989, she left a multitude of unanswered questions about her wrestling years, and one of those questions strikes at the heart of Michael’s own identity.
He holds up his arm. “Do I look completely black to you?” he asks, as if the answer is an obvious “no.” Not only was he never told the identity of his father, he can’t even be certain of his own racial background. Since Michael began that search last spring, he has discovered more than the saga of his mother’s wrestling career. He learned of women involved — possibly unwillingly — in an enterprise that dealt in sex and drugs under the cover of wrestling. The wrestling, he would learn, made some wealthy while forcing others into compliance with false promises of the good life — plus an occasional beating.
When Susie Mae McCoy left wrestling in 1972, shortly before her brothers burned her wrestling clothes, she was destitute and emotionally broken. She had wrestled to make a better life for her children, but, in the end, she lost nearly all her time with them. She knew she had been robbed, in many different ways.
Because of her years on the pro-wrestling circuit, she would later avoid relationships with men and refuse contact with whites. She spent the final 17 years of her life shuttling on the Columbia city bus between low-paying jobs, devoting what remained of her day to her children and her church, while trying to mend other family relationships that were nearly destroyed during her absence.
This story, told through the eyes of Michael and his family, traces Michael’s efforts to learn more about his mother and the father he never knew, and to understand the circumstances that brought him into this world.
The Fabulous Moolah
Susie Mae showed up at a little-known school for girl wrestlers in the fall of 1957, determined to be a star like the school’s owner, Lillian Ellison. Ellison had been wrestling since the early 1950s as “The Fabulous Moolah,” a character that she readily admits in interviews grew out of her real-life preoccupation with money.
Susie Mae had been recruited a few days earlier at one of the rowdy Tuesday evening wrestling matches at Columbia’s Township Auditorium by a talent-spotter with an easy smile and a phone number.
As Susie Mae’s sister Pinky recalls, Susie Mae took the number and called the next day. An ex-wrestler by the name of Buddy Lee answered.
Lee was Ellison’s common-law husband, and together they formed a troubled couple. Passionate, vindictive and ambitious, their common-law marriage was half business partnership, half love affair. They were in many ways underdogs, determined to make money in a cutthroat sport dominated by a small number of regional promoters who often tried to lock them out of the business.
Together they capitalized on Moolah’s fame in the mid-1950s by opening this school in Columbia and taking in young girls. Susie Mae was their first black student. At first, they trained girls on mattresses on the kitchen floor, sending them traveling on the wrestling circuit only when Moolah felt they were ready.
Pinky tagged along during her older sister’s curiosity-filled first visit to the wrestling school. By that time, Ellison and Lee had expanded the small house to include a modest free-weight gym and a regulation-size wrestling ring. Susie Mae began training daily, rushing to the school in the afternoons from her day job cleaning houses. When Pinky wasn’t babysitting Susie Mae’s only child, 2-year-old Kenny, she came along to watch her sister in the ring.
It wasn’t long, Pinky says, before Susie Mae was proving her talent as a wrestler and earning a reputation as somebody who could go all the way to the top of the sport. The year was 1958. Women’s wrestling had been gaining popularity for the past five years to the point of becoming a major attraction.
And then another craze came on the scene: “Negro Lady Wrestlers.” Buddy Lee recognized the potential — for profits and star power — and gave Susie Mae the name “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
To say that Susie Mae was upwardly mobile in her new passion would have to be an understatement. After a mere eight months in training, Susie Mae packed her bags and received assurances from her family that Kenny would be well cared for. She said a tearful goodbye before climbing into a car full of white girl wrestlers and making a mad dash through several cities.
It looked like a promising career move for Susie Mae, says her family. She was wildly popular during her first bout in Columbia’s Township Auditorium, where she faced another black wrestling pioneer, “The African Princess.” After that first match, Susie Mae was the talk of town. How could she not do well wrestling on the road if she had made that much of an impression after one match? Besides, she was traveling with one of the most famous female wrestlers of all time, “The Fabulous Moolah,” and Buddy Lee, a well-respected trainer with a shrewd business sense.
Susie Mae promised to send money home for Kenny and her 11 younger brothers and sisters. A few days after Susie Mae left Cayce, the family heard the name Sweet Georgia Brown on the radio, announced against the backdrop of a roaring audience.
Michael wasn’t around for the first 10 years of his mother’s wrestling career. Still, he knows that those years hold the key to his identity. He was conceived around June of 1966 someplace on the road, where his mother was performing in towns big and small. A playbill shows Sweet Georgia Brown wrestling in Miami in June of ‘66.
Was his father a wrestler, a fan or a boyfriend she secretly kept in some faraway town? His mother always loved to go to Memphis, her family says, but she never explained why. Could that minor fact hold the key? Who was his mother with and when? Who would have records that would show? And would that even help? Veteran female wrestlers say they might wrestle nearly every night in a different city over the course of a week.
Or was his father one of the numerous regional promoters who, ‘60s wrestler Ida Martinez says, “demanded personal services” before they would hand over a lady wrestler’s pay?
And it wasn’t only Michael. Three of Michael’s four brothers and sisters were conceived during the time when Sweet Georgia Brown was traveling the wrestling circuit. They too, Michael says, appear half-white. But unlike Michael, the youngest of the family, they are not interested in digging through the past. Some, including his sister Barbara, even warn that it could be dangerous. In his search for answers, Michael is alone.
On the Road
A number of professional wrestlers, all men, have written honest memoirs about their experiences on the wrestling circuit in the 1960s and ‘70s. Rodney Piper, who started wrestling in 1969, describes the massive quantities of painkillers and recreational drugs pushed by shady characters on the sidelines of the sport.
Piper reserves his most strident criticism for the regional promoters who then ran the enterprise. He called them “sleazy men,” “snakelike” and “the wrestler’s natural enemy.” It has long been alleged that organized crime rackets were active in early professional wrestling.
As Susie Mae’s trainer and personal promoter, Buddy Lee had the job of dealing with the regional promoters and getting his talent on the ticket.
He praised Sweet Georgia Brown in press releases that give a glimpse into the dynamic between Susie Mae and her trainer. The bright yellow write-ups sent to newspapers and radio and television stations emphasized her “rags to riches” story. She was “145 lbs. of ebony beauty” who left the cotton fields of South Carolina. “No more pots and pans for Georgia and no more long hours in the South’s tobacco and cotton fields.” She was “a credit to her race” who was now enjoying “the pleasures and luxuries that money earned by being a girl wrestler could bring.”
The undated press release concludes: “Another Top Attraction from Buddy Lee Promotions.”
“Bulls#!t,” said Michael when he saw the press release. “There were no pleasures and luxuries. She was robbed.”
Despite Michael’s emotion, the details of these years come from Pinky and Michael’s older sister Barbara. Their memories go back to before Michael was born. In those days, the family received $30 to $50 a month from Susie Mae’s wrestling, Barbara says, and it came in the form of cash sent directly from Moolah or Buddy Lee. One of the stipulations of Susie Mae’s agreement with her bosses prohibited her from having her own bank account.
There were other challenges on the road. Rita Cortez, who trained with Susie Mae at Moolah’s school in Columbia and was the only Hispanic, confirms the family legend that Susie Mae was often smuggled into wrestling venues in the trunk of a car. The Ku Klux Klan was active in many of these communities, and Rita and the other wrestlers would sneak Susie Mae into hotel and motel rooms. (Rita Cortez would later become Buddy Lee’s wife, remaining with him until his death from respiratory failure in 1998.)
Whatever the hardships, Susie Mae could take comfort in the knowledge that she was a star, and nowhere more so than in her hometown of Cayce. In fact, Barbara says, Sweet Georgia Brown’s fame in and around Columbia had reached superstar proportions.
That fame was magnified by Susie Mae’s winning of the Texas state negro women’s wrestling title in 1964, the same year she was ranked No. 4 in the world by Wrestling magazine. Good enough to be No. 4 in the world, but not permitted to wrestle the white stars who held the big titles.
The Texas title was also significant because it drew competitors from around the country and was very much a national championship hidden in name by the Texans’ then-curious reluctance to recognize another political sovereignty. Sweet Georgia Brown began appearing on trading cards and posters, and in conversations all over Cayce.
For Barbara, then 6 years old, the local fan base added to the mythical qualities of her mother. At that young age, she knew that this larger-than-life figure, this woman who had gone out into the world and achieved notoriety as a champion, was her “mama.” And even if she rarely got to see this goddess up close, she could take comfort in the fact that some day her mama would return for good. The only thing she did not understand was why certain members of the family in Cayce whispered in angry tones when her mother’s name came up in conversation. If she were so great, wouldn’t they all like her?
It was a minor incongruity until the day when Barbara witnessed something that was her first glimpse into the true nature of her mother’s life. Susie Mae would confide in Barbara years later, answering all the questions about that day.
A large blue Cadillac pulled up in front of the McCoy house in Cayce. A rear door opened and out stepped Sweet Georgia Brown, an elegant women in the most beautiful dress that Barbara had ever seen.
The family gathered around the Cadillac as it cooled off from the highway, emanating the smell of leather and wax. Then a white couple emerged from the front seat. They seemed almost as out of place in the McCoy’s neighborhood as their showboat of a car.
Barbara is still visibly awestruck when she talks about her mother on that day. “I can still remember how beautiful she was,” Barbara recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This is my mama.’ I was so happy that she was home.”
Barbara sat on her mother’s lap and time stood still. Everything about her mama was different. There was the smell of fine perfume and soap, and the professionally styled hair. When her mama stood up, she carried herself differently than the people of Cayce. She was like somebody from television.
Then the white woman told Susie Mae it was time to get back in the car and get to their destination, reminding her that they were only passing through Columbia on their way to another show. Susie Mae told the woman that she wanted more time with the children and insisted that there was plenty of time to get to their destination.
Barbara watched as the woman struck Susie Mae, dragging her to the car and pushing her inside. Barbara grabbed her mother’s legs and was pulled along screaming until an uncle scooped her up. There was much shouting on all sides, and then Barbara’s grandfather intervened, poking his finger in the white woman’s face and unleashing a wrath never seen before by the 6-year-old.
“He told her, ‘You’re around a bunch of black folk and the river is just down below that path. You could disappear and they would never find you.’”
And like a getaway car in a poorly executed abduction, the Cadillac sped away, blowing fumes and leaning heavily through a corner at the end of the street. Susie Mae was on her way back to the wrestling circuit. She wasn’t seen again in Cayce for nearly a year.
Susie Mae reacted to her forcibly abbreviated visit with her family with the same stoic attitude that she reserved for many other things in her life, Barbara would later learn. The initial frustration gave way to the understanding, “That’s just the way things are.”
“She thought that’s what you’ve got to do to survive,” Barbara says now. “She knew she was being used; she knew from the beginning that she was being lied to, but she was a black woman in the ‘50s.”
It only strengthened Susie Mae’s will to be the champion, Barbara says. If she could only achieve the top title, maybe she could throw off these people and negotiate her just reward. She was so close to the top that she could already sense what the accomplishment would feel like, and she knew what it would mean to her family.
She had, by that time, three children at home, two of them the product of the wrestling circuit. The money Buddy and Moolah were sending back home barely paid for their upbringing. She knew she had to take that title and the years were running out. It was a calculated risk, and at the very least it was better than cleaning houses for a living.
Years passed, and in 1972 Susie Mae McCoy came home for good. Her family treated her coldly, her children now recall. Her brothers and sisters were shocked and angry to learn that there were no savings. They concluded that it all had been a scam. Many of them chalked it up to dealing with white people.
Moolah went on to organize lady’s wrestling for Vince McMahon Sr., single-handedly determining who wrestled and where, and who won the matches.
Barbara asked about the white couple that brought her mother home in 1964. Susie Mae explained that they were Moolah and Buddy Lee. Moolah told Free Times last week that the event in front of the McCoy home never took place. She says she “never had a cross word” with Susie Mae.
But the McCoy family tells a different story. It seems that whatever happened on the wrestling circuit frightened the family into silence for decades.
During those last eight years, many things went wrong on both sides, for the children in Cayce and for Susie Mae on the road. One day when Barbara was in high school, she and her mother sat on a bed together and confided in one another about those years.
At home, the McCoy children were abused as “half-breeds” by relatives. They were left outside in the sun to tan and then fed table scraps in the evening. Barbara says they were treated as a source of family shame.
On the road, Susie Mae received odd knocks on the door at strange hours. Then, she told Barbara, she would begin taking off her dress. When she didn’t comply, she was beaten, often brutally. Sometimes her eyes swelled shut. She had a tooth knocked out. And she was threatened with worse.
At home, Barbara said, the “half-breeds” were forced to sleep in a closet while their cousins slept in real beds.
On the road, Susie Mae told her daughter, she was raped, given drugs and made an addict. Her family now believes that it was an intentional attempt to control her.
At home, the children wondered why their mother had left them. As a small girl, Barbara wrote a letter to God and tried to commit suicide.
On the road, Susie Mae gambled for a championship to make a better life for her children. She dreamed of becoming the first black pro-wrestling champion on an even playing field against whites. That achievement would have meant a political victory as much as an athletic victory, because the matches were scripted and winners chosen in advance. Would the wrestling promoters, and by implication the American public, accept a black champion before her body gave out?
Michael’s Search for his Father
When Michael McCoy began delving into his family roots last spring, these details had not yet surfaced. All he knew then was that one name came up in conversations about his mother’s wrestling days more than any other. That name was Lillian Ellison, and it was universally recognized in the family that she was associated with some “bad people.”
Ellison was a logical first stop. She was the only witness to the full span of Susie Mae’s years in the ring, from her first day at the wrestling school in 1957 until her return to Cayce in 1972.
At the end of April, Michael called Ellison.“It was like she was expecting my call,” Michael says. “I said, ‘Do you remember a wrestler by the name Sweet Georgia Brown?’ and she said, ‘You must be Michael.’”
The next week, Michael visited Ellison in Columbia at her rambling 40-acre spread on a street she had named after herself. The Augusta Chronicle reported in a February 1964 sports column that Ellison earned $125,000 in 1961. If true, much of that would have been from her wrestling promotion business as well as winnings from her own wrestling. Obviously, she’d held onto her wealth over the years.
Michael parked next to her white Cadillac and knocked on the door.
Moolah answered, smothering him with affection like a long-lost relative.
“She told me, ‘Oh how I loved your mother,’” Michael says. “She told me my mother was one of her favorites. She kept saying that I was like a son to her.”
Ellison gave Michael a picture of his mother and R&B singer Brook Benton, standing on either side of a glaring Buddy Lee.
“When she handed it to me, she paused like there was something very important about it,” Michael says. “When I got home my wife said I looked a lot like Buddy Lee.”
A background search of Buddy Lee uncovered that his real name was Joseph Pino and that he was originally from the Bronx. Lee left Moolah in 1964 and moved to Nashville with Rita Cortez. At that point, Buddy Lee Promotions elbowed its way into the country music scene. It became the top music promotion company in Nashville, later becoming Buddy Lee Attractions, and Buddy Lee grew into a legend in that city.
In later weeks, Ellison stopped taking Michael’s calls. They arranged another meeting for June but Ellison backed out at the last minute with the excuse that Vince McMahon Jr. was sending his jet to Columbia to pick her up and fly her to Connecticut. She is still on the payroll with WWE, appearing in promotional spots and cameo roles.
Michael then looked up Rita Cortez, Buddy Lee’s wife for more than 30 years. She was friendly at first, agreeing to a meeting. They set a firm date for a Saturday in September. Michael then called Buddy Lee’s daughter Donna.
“[Donna] told me she thought we were both looking for the same answers,” he says. “I thought that was a little odd.”
As the date approached, however, both women stopped taking his calls. He left abundant voicemails asking about the meeting.
Michael drove to Nashville on the scheduled day. He called Rita and dialed *67 to hide his name on caller ID. Rita answered for the first time in nearly two weeks. At first, she refused to meet with him despite his long drive to Nashville.
Rita eventually relented and agreed to meet Michael in the lobby of a downtown hotel. He stood outside and waited.
A black Cadillac Escalade with spinner rims pulled into the parking lot, the driver’s side door inched open and a squat gray-haired lady climbed carefully down from the cab. She was dressed for a rap video, sporting a four-inch diamond-studded gold cross medallion, a diamond-studded gold watch and blinding diamond rings. She looked like a walking jewelry showcase, albeit one with health problems.
She greeted Michael warmly. Her medallion swung side-to-side, giving the impression of an owl-faced grandfather clock.
What did she know about Susie Mae’s personal life? Not much. “She didn’t really share much from her personal life,” she said. “She was very close to Buddy.”
She gave Michael some pictures and a wrestling magazine. She derided Moolah in what seemed part of a long-held grudge dating back to their days with Buddy Lee. Moolah tells in her autobiography of the day when she came home to Columbia unexpectedly only to find Buddy and another woman having sex in the school’s wrestling ring. Rita smiled and said that was her. Stealing Buddy Lee from Moolah was the greatest conquest of her life.
And she offered Michael one strange message for Moolah: “You can tell Moolah that you met your brother and sister in Nashville.”
Michael drove past Rita’s house, a brick fortress in one of Nashville’s finer neighborhoods. It was the home she bought after becoming a widow. She gave the house she once shared with Buddy Lee to Donna.
Buddy Lee Attractions had done well over the years, having signed Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, and the Dixie Chicks. The company was the first to sign Hank Williams Jr. Today it has 21 agents and support personnel. Among its lineup of current entertainers are Jeff Foxworthy and Lee Ann Womack.
Three days after Michael returned from Nashville he received a telephone call from a different-sounding Rita. She was cold and distant. She came across as though she had been programmed.
“She told me, ‘You sure did ask a lot of questions about Buddy Lee. I want you to know that Buddy Lee is not your father,’” Michael explains.
“Then she told me if I wanted to find my father, I should take out classified ads in the newspapers where my mama wrestled.” Michael looks incredulous. His face contorts and his voice rises.
“Now who’s going to answer an ad like that? She must really think I’m stupid.”
Michael takes it in stride. He talks about how today isn’t 1957, but he knows how little has changed.
Then the ordained Pentecostal inside him comes out. Michael is a man with a mission. Early this year, he had been inspired by his pastor, Bishop Walter Kearse Jr. Kearse helped Michael understand that the story of Sweet Georgia Brown mattered not merely because she was his mother, but also because she was a part of history. She was the first black female wrestler in South Carolina. She was a Texas state champion and brought home the belt to prove it. Yet in the end, the reward for her victories had been stolen.
Michael’s voice takes on a sermon-like quality. He can’t resist a little wordplay and exaggerated enunciation.
“They say, ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles,’ but that’s not really accurate,” Michael says. He pauses and his voice becomes more deliberate.
“No, that’s the way they crumbled the cookie. They just had to put their fingers on it.”
Michael can never reach into the ashes and reclaim Sweet Georgia Brown’s silk jacket or her championship belt. But he did find that she had left in him some championship genes. Some would consider this quest the final match of Sweet Georgia Brown’s career, and Michael will not let it be fixed.
Michael’s attorney tells him that he can seek DNA evidence to determine whether he is actually the forgotten son of Buddy Lee. And Michael is going for it.