Matthew Bullock: Coaching pioneer and distinguished public servant
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first in a month-long series about noteworthy black Americans in Everett, taken from vignettes written by former City Clerk Michael Matarazzo in his book ‘They Came from Everett.’ The histories of many black residents of Everett might surprise readers, as many of their stories have never been fully told. There are judges, former slaves who become hotel operators, football players and a former ambassador. It is hoped our readers enjoy these pieces as much as we did. Matarazzo’s book is available at bookblues.com.
Jesse and Amanda (Sneed) Bullock were parents on a mission.
Born into slavery in North Carolina, both Jesse and Amanda were determined to claim their piece of the American Dream and prepare their children to do the same.
Shortly after the birth of their second son, Matthew, on Sept. 11, 1881, the Bullocks moved to Boston. Jesse worked as a day laborer wherever and for as long as his body would hold up. Through hard work and sacrifice, Mr. and Mrs. Bullock saved enough to buy a home, and in 1895 the family moved to their new home in Everett on Winter Street.
Matthew, now 14, began attending the Everett Public Schools where Matt was recognized for his academic and athletic ability, as well as his affable personality. Matt entered Everett High School in 1896 and made an immediate impression; especially on the football field where he started at left tackle as freshman.
The 1896 and 1897 Everett High School football teams won Everett’s first two state championships with the legendary James “Hub” Hart running behind a stellar offensive line that included the young Matt Bullock.
The 1898 season, however, would see the Everett team fall victim to infighting and discontent. Prior to 1902, the football team was coached by whomever was elected captain. The 1898 team was coached by team captain Chester Lothrop, who resigned and was succeeded by future Everett Mayor William Weeks. The situation got so bad that the team disbanded on November 16, thereby forfeiting three games.
When the team gathered in 1899 to choose a new coach/captain, it was important that they chose someone who could pull the fractured team together and regenerate team spirit and pride. The person they chose was senior left tackle and four-year starter Matthew Bullock; perhaps the first African-American to coach a predominately white high school team.
Under Bullock’s leadership and outstanding ability to open holes for his freshman running back and brother, Henry Bullock (who would coach the team in 1901), the 1899 team would bring a third state championship to Everett. The local media praised Bullock not only for his play on the field, but also for his game preparation and for the leadership that he brought to team. He was touted by the meda as “good timber for a college tackle.”
An outstanding student, Matthew entered Dartmouth College in 1900. The young man arrived at Hanover, NH, carrying only one suitcase but with $50 given to him by his hard-working father, an amount equal to $1,428.57 in today’s dollars. While the relationship between Dartmouth and Matthew may have been originally based on his status as a star athlete, he quickly showed his diversity academically as a member of Paleopitas, the senior honors society, athletically in track where he specialized in broad jump and high jump for four years, in football where he was one of the college’s top football players for three years and musically, singing in the Church and Chapel Choirs and several glee clubs. According to one article from the Worcester Telegram, “he was blessed with a marvelous baritone singing voice…and sang professionally as a Dartmouth student and after he graduated.” (Worcester Telegram, Spring 1988, in Dartmouth Alumni Files).
An incident in 1903, however, marred Matthew’s senior year at Dartmouth. Bullock and the Dartmouth team were scheduled to play Princeton in New Jersey and to stay at the Princeton Inn on campus. The Inn, however, would not provide accommodations for Bullock because he was black, so the team, unwilling to be separated from their teammate, stayed in New York City and made the 50-mile trip to Princeton on gameday.
On the first play of the game, a number of Princeton players piled on Bullock, breaking his collarbone. Considering that Matt was a tackle and did not carry the call, the Dartmouth players were incensed and accused Princeton of purposely hurting Bullock because of his color. While the Princeton players did not deny purposely hurting Matthew, they claimed that it is their intention in every game to take out the best player as early as possible. The injury ended Matt’s season and college career; a season in which Walter Camp stated that, until the injury, he was sure to name the tackle as an All-American.
He graduated from Dartmouth in 1904 and headed to Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1907. To pay for law school, Bullock coached football; starting at Massachusetts Agricultural College (now UMass-Amherst) in 1904; which made him the first African-American to coach a predominately white college football team.
He had a very successful first year as the team, going 5-2-1, but for the next two years the Athletic Department had trouble raising the $251.03 for a coach’s salary and Matt went to coach at Malden High School for the 1905 and 1906 seasons.
In 1907, Massachusetts Agricultural hired Bullock back and he coached there for the next two seasons. He left there with a reputation for impeccable game preparation, an insistence on proper conditioning for his players, and a record of 13-8-5.
By 1909, Jesse Bullock’s years of hard work began to catch up with him and on May 17, he died from symptoms caused by diabetes and complicated by what doctors termed exhaustion. He was only 60 years old.
Shortly after his father died, Matt accepted a position at Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) coaching football and teaching economics, Latin, history and sociology and eventually, he would add Director of Athletics to his resume as well. With all that was going on in his life, Matt still had time for love, and in 1910, he married Katherine Wright of Boston. Katherine, the daughter of Peter and Julia (Heatherlee) Wright, was a fashionable dressmaker and milliner.
The couple returned to Atlanta and Atlanta Baptist, but 1912, Matt was ready to practice law full-time and did so until 1915. He returned to academia as the Dean of the Alabama State Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, now Alabama A&M, and also coached football there, as well.
With the outbreak of World War I, Matthew attempted to enlist but was rejected because of what was called athletic heart, a condition commonly found in athletes who routinely exercise more than an hour a day, in which the human heart is enlarged, and the resting heart rate is lower than normal.
Unable to serve in uniform, Matthew went to Camp Meade as an educational secretary of the Young Men’s Christian Association organization, which served the military forces. He was sent to France with the 369th Infantry, becoming a part of the American Expeditionary Forces. He served 15 months in France and at the end of the war was chosen to represent the “Y” at the Burial of the Unknown Soldier. However, while in France, he was recommended for the Croix de Guerre for his leadership and bravery during his frontline service but the colonel of the regiment refused to approve it for reasons of bias.
After the war, and with two children at home, Matthew Jr., born in 1920 and Julia Amanda, born in 1921, he returned to Boston where he practiced law, served as executive secretary of the Boston Urban League and in 1925 received his first public appointment when Republican Attorney General Jay R. Benton appointed him as a Special Assistant Attorney General. Bullock served in that capacity until 1927 when Republican Governor Alvan Fuller appointed him to the State Board of Parole and the Advisory Board of Pardons.
While Matt’s legal training and commitment to the safety and welfare of the public served him well on the Parole Board, on one occasion so did his time on the gridiron. After denying him parole, a convict charged angrily at Bullock, but Matthew quickly wrestled him to the ground, rendering him helpless until guards could take him into custody.
He was not reappointed to the Parole Board by Democratic Governor James Michael Curley, serving instead as an assistant to the commissioner of corrections, for six years when Republican Governor Leverett Saltonstall convinced him to serve on the Parole Board again. Bullock continued in that position until his retirement.
Matthew Bullock’s reputation soon expanded beyond academia and Massachusetts state government when, in 1945 as WWII was coming to an end, he was asked by Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, to serve on a commission to investigate relations between black and white enlisted men in the Pacific theatre. This assignment triggered a sense of great pride to Matthew, and resulted in a report that began the process of racial integration of the United States Navy.
Matthew was unable to relish in his accomplishment, however, as 1945 was also the year that his beloved Katherine died.
Bullock would continue to work for several more years, but his attention was gradually turning toward his Baha’i Faith that he had accepted in 1940.
Starting in 1953, Matthew spent his winters in Curacao, Netherland West Indies, as a member of the Baha’i community. Bullock often made public appearances on behalf of the Baha’i Faith and served as a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i Faith in the United States.
For his efforts in opening new territories to the Faith during its 10-Year Crusade from 1953-1963, he was given the title Knight of Bahá’u’lláh and his name was added to the Roll of Honour that stands beneath the entrance door to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh; the most holy place for Bahá’ís.
By 1967, he moved to Detroit where his daughter lived and with his health gradually diminishing he entered a nursing home. In 1970 Harvard University conferred upon him an honorary degree, and in 1971 Dartmouth College honored him with the honorary degree Doctor of Laws.
Matthew Bullock, a true pioneer in so many arenas, died in Detroit on Dec. 17, 1972. His life, legacy and accomplishments are just recently being recognized.