Out in the Open

What Matthew Bullock's escape from the U.S. to Canada in the 1920s says about us

Historian Saje Mathieu shares the little-known story of Matthew Bullock, a young black veteran from a North Carolina town whose escape to Canada in the 1920s became an international incident.
A mug shot of Matthew Bullock from Hamilton police, released to Canadian and U.S. newspapers in the 1920s. (Robin Rowland)

Matthew Bullock was a 23-year-old black veteran from a North Carolina town whose escape to Canada in the 1920s caused an international incident and dominated headlines for months. Today, he's mainly forgotten, but lives on as a family legend. 

"He was a folk hero to my father's generation," says James Pollard, a distant cousin of Bullock's.

The Globe news headline about Matthew Bullock. (The Globe Archives)

The story begins with some bad apples. Bullock and his brother purchase about 10 cents of apples at the general store, and when they realize the apples are rotten and ask for their money back, the white clerk refuses. This later erupts into a clash between a group of white men and a group of black men that culminates in the lynching of Bullock's younger brother. 

Bullock's father instructs Matthew to get out of town and drive north to avoid the same fate. But when Bullock arrives at the Canadian border, he's turned away. Instead he enters the country illegally. For a while, he makes a quiet life for himself in Hamilton, Ontario, finding work and worshipping at the local church. But in a crackdown of the community, he's rounded up by police and it becomes clear he's a wanted man in North Carolina. And this is when his story captures the public imagination on both sides of the border

A New York Times editorial about Matthew Bullock (The Globe Archives)

"For Canadians, the danger is not extraditing Matthew Bullock, the danger is sending him to his death, his sure death in the South, if Canadians do not step up to be his saviour," says Saje Mathieu who wrote about Bullock in her book North of the Color Line

By playing up Canada's supposed superiority compared to its neighbour, Bullock's supporters are able to advance his cause. Meanwhile, North Carolina accuses Canada of coddling a criminal and failing to respect extradition treaties.

The Globe headline about Matthew Bullock (The Globe Archives)

Ultimately, a judge rules to allow Bullock to stay in Canada. But the story doesn't end there. 

"The newly formed Canadian Ku Klux Klan sees this Matthew case as one that warrants their immediate attention," Mathieu says.

So once again, Bullock is forced to flee. This time likely headed for England. 

Mathieu says Bullock's case raises important questions.

"We get to believe that Canada is devoid of its own racist impulses, its own racist history, its own racist traditions," she says. "So the Matthew Bullock case is in part so important to me because it allows Canadians to interrogate that myth."

Matthew Bullock's draft card.

Special thanks to Kate Zieman, Saje Mathieu, John Weaver, and the Bullock family.