UVA and the History of Race: Burkley Bullock in History’s Distorting Mirror

UVA and the History of Race: Burkley Bullock in History’s Distorting Mirror

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia – now entering its third century – has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. The President’s Commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. Here are some of them, written by those who did the research. One in an occasional series:

 

In April 1890, an editorial in the University of Virginia’s College Topics student newspaper suggested reducing petty thefts from student residences by “making all servants in the employ of the University wear badges” and also “relieving the grounds of the swarms of darkies of all sizes and descriptions, who now infest the place.”1 That same year, UVA’s Corks and Curls yearbook published five brief character sketches of African American men whose daily interactions with students and faculty made them familiar, even welcome faces on Grounds.

The editors introduced “Berkeley Bullocks” as “one of the best known and generally liked” of the “many odd and picturesque characters of the negro race that are to be met with everywhere around the University, but that are now fast passing away before the superior intellectual culture and proud assertion of equal rights on the part of their descendants.” They cast Bullock as a living, breathing relic of the “good old ante-bellum darkey” type popularized in the writings of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris.

He is full of cornfield philosophy, reminiscences, folk-lore and quaint observations on men and things, all so well and pithily expressed that it is well worth one’s while to listen with attention to one of our last surviving representatives of the old plantation hand. . . . He knows well his place, and is never pushing, scorning with holy indignation the growing class of educated, aspiring negroes of our present, justly believing with Uncle Remus that he could ‘fling more edication in a N_ _ _ _  r with a barr’l stave than all the schools twixt this and Michigan.’2

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In 1890, UVA’s Corks and Curls yearbook published five brief character sketches of African American men, including this one of “Berkeley Bullocks.” (Photos by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The historical record – painstakingly retrieved from a multitude of sources – presents a far different portrait.3 Bullock was a literate man who, over the course of a lifetime, freed himself and his mother from slavery, sent his children to school, purchased more than a dozen properties in Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville, started the Ivy Creek Baptist Church, ran several businesses, and co-founded the region’s first industrial and land improvement company “organized by colored men” for the benefit of the African American community.

Burkley (sometimes spelled Berkeley or Berkley) Bullock was born in Louisa County in or around 1830.4 His parents, Abraham and Cynthia, were enslaved, meaning that young Burkley entered life as chattel in the eyes of state and federal law.5

The Bullocks belonged to Col. John R. Jones, a wealthy financier and merchant who profited directly from slavery and the slave trade. Jones held a stake in a mercantile firm at Louisa Court House; he also did “quite an extensive business” in Albemarle County, “and acted as the financial agent of several of the most substantial planters and farmers of the county.” Jones owned a “fine mansion” at 109 Jefferson St., where he raised “a large family of ten children.”6

Burkley Bullock was born in into slavery in 1830. His family belonged to Col. John R. Jones, a wealthy merchant, who lived at 109 Jefferson St. in Charlottesville. The house still stands today. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

According to Bullock family history, young Burkley “performed the duties of a house boy” for the Jones family. “In his mid-teens,” his great-granddaughter Jean Henderson writes, Bullock “was assigned head of the commissary when Colonel Jones discovered he could read and perform other learned tasks.” It is possible, she adds, that Bullock worked “in Colonel Jones’s store” at Court Square.7

The story of how Bullock learned to read and write provides a glimpse into the social world of the slave community and strategies of resistance shared across households and generations. It was Peter Fossett – once Thomas Jefferson’s trusted “footman” at Monticello, sold to Col. Jones at auction after Jefferson’s death – who taught Bullock to read and write.8 “Peter Faucett [sic] taught my father, Burkley Bullock, to read and write by light wood knots in the late hours of night when everyone was supposed to be asleep,” Charles Bullock told an interviewer in 1949. “They would steal away to a deserted cabin, over the hill from the big house, out of sight.”9

In a late-19th century newspaper interview, Fossett described the power of slave literacy and the threat such knowledge posed in the eyes of his Charlottesville master:

When I was sold to Col. Jones I took my books along with me. One day I was kneeling before the fireplace spelling the word “baker,” when Col. Jones opened the door, and I shall never forget the scene as long as I live.

“What have you got there, sir,” were his words.

I told him.

“If I ever catch you with a book in your hands, thirty-nine lashes on your bare back.” 

He took the book and threw it into the fire, then called up his sons and told them that if they ever taught me they would receive the same punishment. 

The Joneses came to value Fossett as a trusted domestic servant – “notwithstanding that all the time I was teaching all the people around me to read and write, and even venturing to write free passes and sending slaves away from their masters. Of course they did not know this or they would not have thought me so valuable.”10

Flourishing after freedom

Empowered with literacy and local knowledge, Bullock engaged in everyday acts of resistance. He ran off at least once, perhaps with the aid of a self-forged pass, getting as far as the Ohio River. Horace Tonsler, an ex-slave from Charlottesville, related the story as he had heard it from Bullock himself:

Yes, I know of a case of runaway slave, Berkeley Bullock. . . .  he showed me de very road he used when he fust ‘scaped. Dis road led to Bath County. Den he said he boarded a stage dat went as far as de Ohio River. He aimed to get ’cross.  . . . Bullock was still on de stage when it go to de Ohio River. Dey caught him dere fo’ he could make it cross de river.11

When Col. Jones became “embarrassed by financial troubles” in the mid-1850s,12 he sold “thirty six valuable slaves” to cover his debts.13 Bankruptcy sale records indicate that Bullock and his mother were sold to different buyers, “Cynthia” to “Wm. Brand” for $5, and “Berkley” to “S. Maupin” for $1,205. Burkley’s likely buyer, UVA professor Socrates Maupin, lived in Pavilion VIII on the Lawn.14

Records indicate that, when enslaved, Bullock was sold to UVA professor Socrates Maupin, who lived in Pavilion VIII on the Lawn. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Bullock secured freedom for himself and his mother sometime before the end of the Civil War. “Somehow he was freed first and then bought his mother for a few dollars because she pretended to be feeble and not able to work for a so-called master,” his granddaughter, Fanny Bowles Leach, writes in her memoir.15

Like many ex-slaves in Virginia, Bullock saw property ownership as the key to securing independence and economic autonomy for himself and his family. In September 1868, he purchased a half-share in 243 acres of farmland in Albemarle County near Earlysville. Bullock and his wife Mary partnered on the purchase with another African American couple, William and Caroline Brown, who used a house and lot they owned in the city of Charlottesville to secure the $3,000 deed of trust.16

Pooling their resources, the Bullocks and Browns hoped to bank on their own sweat equity, pay off the loan over three years, and, ultimately, turn a profit. When the final payment came due in 1871, however, “the depressed condition of the country and financial difficulties in this county and state” left them “unable to pay the whole of the debt secured.” William Brown petitioned the Chancery Court to delay a public sale, saying the farm would yield sufficient profits to pay off the notes by spring.17 Ultimately, however, the property was sold, and Brown and his family left the state.18

Bullock decided to “cast his bucket down” once again, despite his failed first venture. In December 1871, he purchased a 35-acre Albemarle County lot from John Shackleford, a 74-year-old white farmer, for $435.19 By 1880, Bullock owned 75 acres in the vicinity of Hydraulic and Earlysville roads. The assessed value of his farm, including land, fences and buildings, was $1,200; the assessed value of his livestock – including one milk cow, one calf, nine swine, and fourteen poultry – was $30.20

For more than 15 years Bullock and his extended family – 13 children and relatives nearby – made the Ivy Creek community their home. Bullock is credited with founding the Ivy Creek Baptist Church, today known as Union Ridge. By 1880, the Bullock household was changing. Four grown children had struck out on their own, three teenage children were listed as living at home and attending school, and four children age 10 and under rounded out the family.21

Bullock is credited with founding the Ivy Creek Baptist Church, today known as Union Ridge Baptist, in Albemarle County. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Sometime around 1888, Bullock moved with his family to the newly incorporated City of Charlottesville to pursue new economic opportunities. The 1888-89 Charlottesville City Directory listed him as the proprietor of a restaurant at Union Station, opposite the Virginia Midland railroad junction. Wright’s Railroad Dining Room, owned by a white man and staffed by African American cooks and waiters, competed for business at the same location.22

According to Corks and Curls, UVA students who frequented the “little house by the wayside” saw Bullock as a nervous but friendly proprietor, ever willing to engage them in an “exchange of bantering and exasperating conversation” over fried chicken and soda biscuits.

Bullock became the proprietor of a restaurant at Union Station in Charlottesville in the late 1880s. This photo of Union Station was taken by Rufus Holsinger in 1919. (Photo courtesy the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

No one that has ever come into contact with Berkeley can forget his appearance, his manner, and his habits. His face is furrowed deep by the plough of time, not a little aided by care, in the shape of a large family and business much crippled by “that’ar new fangled rest’rant over thar.” But still from under his bushy eyebrows there gleam with unabated brilliancy a pair of furtive, restless eyes, which seem always on the alert for chance, gain or unexpected disaster at the hands of his, alas, too often, riotous customers.

When not noiselessly gliding about among his chicken legs and apple pies, Berkeley stands in the corner suspiciously eyeing his customers with folded hands and a pitiable look of resigned dispair. It is evident that he is never certain of his pay and is always haunted with a gnawing fear that the frolicsome students may even make away with his house. But, nevertheless, Berkeley is a kind-hearted man, and when asked for credit – after the meal has been consumed – he acquiesces with a fair show of grace….

Such is an imperfect sketch of Berkeley which, if perfect, could scarce be necessary, for we all know him so well that there is hardly a need of anything to bring back to memory what none are likely to forget. 23

The students saw what they wanted to see in Bullock – an illiterate ex-slave, well-schooled in domestic service and the etiquette of race relations in the Jim Crow South. They knew nothing of his education, his family, his social world, his interior life as a former slave trying to secure a foothold in the New South economy. Certainly few were aware of the intricate financial dealings that enabled him to acquire more than a dozen properties, open a restaurant, and establish wood, coal and ice businesses in the heart of the city.

In April 1889, Bullock and eight other “colored” men from the Charlottesville area formed a joint stock company called the Piedmont Industrial and Land Improvement Company. The state-chartered company was authorized to issue up to $100,000 in total stock, with individual shares selling for $50 each. Among the company’s aims was “to extend aid and assistance, financial and otherwise, to persons of limited means in purchasing homes.”24

In its first month of operation, the company boasted that it had purchased 10 city lots and 15 or 20 more bordering the city. “Thus you see Charlottesville is blooming,” the African American-owned Richmond Planet reported, “and with it blooms the only land Improving Co. organized by colored men, chartered by the law and in successful operation in Piedmont, Va.” The article concluded with a triumphant declaration of race pride: “We are coming.”25

In October 1891, the company held what was touted as the first county fair to be organized by African Americans. “Pedestrians by the hundreds and a variety of vehicles indescribable” made their way to the fairgrounds on Brenham’s Farm. The president and directors of the company – Bullock included – joined the milelong grand procession, riding on horseback. 26

When Bullock died in 1908, the Charlottesville Daily Progress – a white-owned paper that typically paid scant attention to African American social affairs – published the news on page one: “Berkeley Bullock, a worthy colored man respected throughout this community, died yesterday afternoon at the advanced age of seventy-four. He had been in very bad health for the past two years, suffering mainly from rheumatism which developed into dropsy. Bullock was widely known as a steward at several summer resorts, and for years conducted a restaurant near Union Station, this city.”27

Bullock died in 1908 and was buried, alongside family members, in Charlottesville’s Daughters of Zion Cemetery on Oak Street. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The Progress reported on the funeral services as well: “The funeral services … were held from the First (colored) Baptist church yesterday at 11 a.m. ... Bullock had been in failing health for over two years. He died at the advanced age of 77 years and had been a member of the church for 65 years, having joined at the age of twelve. He organized the Old Ivy Creek Baptist church, which is now Union Ridge Baptist Church in the county. He was one of the pioneer business men of the city. For a number of years he conducted a restaurant at the Union Station and later engaged in the wood, coal and ice business.”28

This respectful salute to Bullock by the editors of the Daily Progress stands in sharp contrast to the stock racial caricature presented by the editors of Corks and Curls some 20 years earlier.

Bullock was buried, alongside family members, in Daughters of Zion Cemetery on Oak Street. The cemetery – founded by an African American mutual aid society in 1873 – has been recognized as a city landmark worthy of preservation and commemoration.29

 

Scot French is an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. He received his Ph.D. in history at UVA in 2000. From 1997 to 2006, he served as assistant/associate/interim director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies. French serves on the National Advisory Boards of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University and Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation.

 

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Notes

1. “Make Them Wear Badges,” College Topics, April 30, 1890. “It is possible that injustice may be done to the aforesaid visitants in putting all the thieving upon them – as it is not likely they would care for law books or boxing gloves – but it is probable that most of it is done by them, and at all events it can do no harm to make the experiment and it will have the salutary effect of relieving the landscape of a very disagreeable feature.”

2. “Berkeley Bullocks,” Corks and Curls of the Virginia University, Published by the Students, No. 4, 1889-90, pp. 132-133. Bullock’s name is misspelled “Bullocks” in the heading but spelled correctly on first reference immediately below. http://search.lib.virginia.edu/catalog/uva-lib:2251087/view#openLayer/uv...

3. The author is grateful to Bullock family descendants, particularly the late Jean Henderson, for contributing their research and family memoirs to this revised portrait. Local researchers Edwina St. Rose, Sam Towler, Ann Carter, Bob Vernon, and others provided helpful leads on sources and context. The Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, under the leadership of then-director Reginald D. Butler (1996-2005), provided intellectual and institutional support through its Ford Foundation-funded Center for the Study of Local Knowledge.

4. Bullock’s headstone lists his birth date as 1830. His obituary, dated Jan. 27, 1908, gives his age as 77, which would put his birth date in 1831 or 1832.  See “Funeral for Burkley Bullock,” The Daily Progress (Charlottesville, Va.), Jan. 27, 1908, p. 3.

5. Fanny Lee Nolian Bowles Leach, “Family History,” undated, p. 5.  Photocopy courtesy of Brenda Calloway.

6. Early Charlottesville: Recollections of James Alexander, 1828-1874, ed. Mary Rawlings (Albemarle County Historical Society, 1942): 20. The house, known as “Social Hall,” is still standing.

7. See sketch of Berkley B. Bullock, Sr., prepared by his great-granddaughter, Jean L. Henderson, in “Linking the Branches of the Bullock Family Tree to Our Charlottesville Roots, 2000.”  Used by permission.

8. “Charlottesville, Va. Letter. The Only Surviving Ex-Slave of the Renowned Thomas Jefferson Visiting Once More the Place of His Nativity,” The Colored American, June 23, 1900, p. 9: “While with the family of Col. John R. Jones he taught all of the slaves to read and write, among whom was Mr. Burkley Bullock, who for several years was the proprietor of the only restaurant at Union station in this city.” Born at Monticello in 1815, Fossett would have been 15 years older than Bullock. See entry for “Peter Fossett” in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/peter-fossett

9. Charles W. Bullock Sr., undated; Pearl M. Graham papers, Howard University.  The text of a subsequent letter from Charles Bullock to Pearl M. Graham, dated Oct. 10, 1949, suggests that Graham solicited his recollections of Peter Fossett earlier that same year.

10. “Once the Slave of Thomas Jefferson: The Rev. Mr. Fossett, of Cincinnati, Recalls the Days When Men Came from the Ends of the Earth to Consult ‘the Sage of Monticello’ -- Reminiscences of Jefferson, Lafayette, Madison and Monroe,” The New York World, Jan. 30, 1898, p. 33.

11. Interview with Horace Tonsler, Charlottesville, Va., date unknown, reprinted in Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves, eds. Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976): 286-287.  Original Source: Negro in Virginia, MS version, draft no. 1, chap. 13, p. 14.

12. On Jones’s “financial troubles,” see the Rev. Edgar Woods, Albemarle County, Virginia (Harrisonburg, Va.: C.J. Carrier Company, 1978; first published in 1901): 239.

13. For bankruptcy sale advertisement, see “Thirty Six Valuable Slaves for Sale,” Richmond Enquirer, Oct. 30, 1855.

14. For names of those sold at auction and their buyers, see deed of sale dated Nov. 16, 1855, Albemarle County Deed Book 54, pp. 387-388. Thanks to Sam Towler for locating this deed and Edwina St. Rose for sharing her scanned copy. For Towler’s speculation on the sale/dispersal of Bullock family members, see his comments on “Still More on Peter Briggs,” Encyclopedia Virginia, The Blog, Nov. 5, 2013. https://www.evblog.virginiahumanities.org/2013/04/still-more-on-peter-biggs/.

15. Fanny Bowles Leach, “Family History,” undated, p. 5.  Photocopy courtesy of Brenda Calloway.

16. See deed “made this 1st day of September, in the year One Thousand Eight Hundred and Sixty Eight -- between Eugene O. Michie of the first part and William Brown & Berkeley Bullock of the 2nd part,” Albemarle County Deed Book No. 63, p. 525-526.

17. Albemarle County Chancery Cause, William Brown &c. vs. R.R. Prentiss, Trustee, Index No. 1872-018, Case No. 561 16. Library of Virginia.

18. The Browns moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts; see 1880 U.S. Census, Middlesex County, City of Cambridge, Mass., Ward 1, P. 66.

19. The sale was not recorded until 13 years later, after Shackleford’s death. Bullock requested that legal title to the tract be conveyed to him since the money he owed on the property had “long since been paid in full.” See deed “dated May 12th 1884, between said Rebecca Shackleford , Richard Shackleford, & Louisa Shackleford, his wife, of the fist part, and said Berkeley Bullock of the second part . . .” Albemarle County Deed Book 83, p. 383.

20. U.S. Census, 1880, Agricultural Supplement.  Schedule 2, Productions of Agriculture in Charlottesville District in the County of Albemarle, State of Virginia, P. 5, Supervisor’s District 3, Enumeration District 11.

21. U.S. Census, 1880, Agricultural Supplement.

22. See entries for “Wright's Railroad Dining Room” and “Bullock Berkeley col” under “Restaurants” in Turner's Charlottesville City Directory, 1888-89, Commercial Directory,  p. 120.   Both restaurants were located at the “VM junction” (Virginia Midland junction). 

23. Corks and Curls of the Virginia University, Published by the Students, No. 4, 1889-90, pp. 132-133.

24. Charter of the Piedmont Industrial and Land Improvement Co., April 9, 1889; Charter Book 1, Charlottesville City Clerk’s Office.

25. The (Richmond, Va.) Planet, May 17, 1890, p. 4.  Report from Charlottesville.

26. The (Richmond, Va.) Planet, Nov. 7, 1891, p. 4.  Report from Charlottesville.

27. “Worthy Colored Man Dead,” The (Charlottesville, Va.) Daily Progress, Jan. 25, 1908, p. 1.

28. “Funeral for Burkley Bullock,” The (Charlottesville, Va.) Daily Progress, Jan. 27, 1908, p. 3.

29. “Grave Concern: Local Group Preserves Black Cemetery,” Cville Magazine, June 8, 2017. https://www.c-ville.com/grave-concern-local-group-preserves-historic-bla...

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