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A Roxbury standard: The Original H-Block

Black History on Roxbury, MA

Melvin B. Miller

Modern-day history has largely forgotten about men like Matthew W. Bullock.

He lived in Roxbury, near what is now known as Munroe Park. More than anyone else, he set the tone of conspicuous achievement in a neighborhood filled with high achievers.

Melnea Cass was one of them. Valedictorian of her high school class, Cass eventually moved to the same neighborhood as Bullock — and promptly became one of Boston’s most prominent community leaders.

Back in the early decades of the 20th century, back when she was in her late teens and early 20s, she couldn’t find good work downtown. It wasn’t right, but she worked anyway — as a domestic servant.

“You could always make a living,” Cass told an interviewer. “But it wasn’t always what you wanted to do.”

She lived in Upper Roxbury.

On Harold Street.

Not too far away were the Snowdens. Given the racial tenor of early 20th century America, their story is nothing short of incredible.

It starts with Frank Snowden Sr., “the Colonel,” a spit-and-polish man who served in the segregated military during the days of World War II.

No telling what the Colonel would say about his old neighborhood, a place where he raised his two sons — one of whom would become a renowned scholar on Africans in ancient Greece and Rome, the other a founder of “Freedom House,” one of Boston’s foremost community organizations.

No telling how the Colonel would react to police and media reports that his neighborhood is now called “H-Block” by reputed gang members, and that the streets he once walked are now dotted with makeshift memorials to slain youth.

In the Colonel’s generation, the fight was about academic achievement — not mindless, often bloody, turf battles.

That message of intellectual strength was passed down to his grandson and granddaughter.

“I was very afraid to do anything that would reflect badly,” Frank Snowden III told the Washington Post, recounting his experience in 1964 as the first black to attend St. Albans, an esteemed prep school in Washington, D.C. “I was imbued with the fact that it was just not my story but a collective endeavor.”

Snowden III’s racial awareness, even as a high school student, had its roots in both the Colonel’s orders and the intellect of his father, Frank Snowden Jr., a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of countless scholarly books and essays.

“His aspiration for me,” Snowden III said, “was to have demonstrated racial equality by achieving educational equality.”

The Colonel’s other son, Otto, married Muriel Sutherland, a graduate of Radcliffe College and the daughter of a prominent New Jersey dentist. Together, they started Freedom House. Their daughter, Gail, also went to Radcliffe and then attended the Simmons College School of Management. She later became executive vice president of the First National Bank of Boston.

Matthew Bullock knew a thing or two about opportunity and slavery.

In 1944, Massachusetts Gov. Leverett Saltonstall appointed Bullock to the chairmanship of the state Parole Board.

Noting the color of Bullock’s skin as “coal black,” Time magazine characterized the appointment as a shrewd political move.

“In Boston, bedeviled by uneasy racial relations,” the magazine wrote, “the appointment seemed a step toward a new atmosphere.”

And it was — at least to Bullock.

“It’s a great thing for my people,” Bullock told Time.

Bullock lived at the corner of Harold and Munroe Streets.

Community matters

In 1944, Bullock was 63 years old, and at the time of his appointment, the neighborhood was filled with children.

Eleven-year-old Reginald Alleyne was one of them. He became one of the first African American professors at UCLA Law School. His sister Delores, however, had just as notable a reputation among the youth that hung around the huge puddingstone boulders jutting from Horatio Harris Park.

He was the fastest runner in the neighborhood and the city’s 50-yard dash champ. She was the second fastest.

H. Carl McCall, another great schoolyard athlete, was 9. He went on to Dartmouth College and later became the first African American to win statewide office in New York when he was elected state comptroller in 1993. In 2002, he ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York, losing to incumbent Republican Gov. George Pataki.

McCall attributed his success to his upbringing in Roxbury.

As a black student at Roxbury Memorial High School, McCall was tracked into shop courses instead of college prep classes.

“The people from my church marched right down to my high school and told them to put me in college courses immediately,” McCall told the Boston Globe during an interview.

The Twelfth Street Baptist church wasn’t the only factor in McCall’s early life. “My mother always stressed education as the way to better myself, not sports, “ he told the Globe.

If education was necessary, hard work was equally important. Malcolm X had a part-time job working behind the soda fountain at the drugstore on the corner of Townsend Street and Humboldt Avenue. Another neighborhood boy, Mel Miller, the founder of the Bay State Banner, delivered groceries on weekends as a teenager from Oscar Sach’s, a store further up on Harold Street.

Ruth Ellen Fitch was a baby back then. She lived on Harrishof Street with her two older brothers, the McKinney boys, Billy and Tommy. Billy went to Fisk University and became an official in the State Department’s USAID program.

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Ruth Ellen took a different tack. After attending Barnard College and Harvard Law School, she became the first black woman to become a partner in one of Boston’s prestigious law firms. She is now CEO of Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, the place where many of the neighborhood kids were born.

It was a different time in the 1940s, and blacks in Boston were affected by international events. The fight for freedom against Nazism in Europe dominated life back in the states. Gas rationing was a part of life, as were recycling and civil defense drills.

More important for African Americans, as the Black Press dutifully reported, World War II was also a battle back home, particularly in the segregated military.

Unlike the First World War, “now the Negro is showing a ‘democratic upsurge rebellion,’ bordering on open hostility,” the Amsterdam-Star News reported.

In May 1941, A. Phillip Randolph called for 100,000 African Americans to march on Washington to protest racial discrimination in the armed forces and war industries.

It was part of the “Double V” campaign launched by the Pittsburgh Courier to insure victory against racism abroad and at home.

In June 1941, Roscoe Dunjee, editor of the Oklahoma Black Dispatch, challenged the American government to come up with something more original than the idea that African Americans were supposed to fight Hitler’s army with only “a mop and a broom.”

“If the March on Washington does nothing else,” the Chicago Defender asserted, “it will convince white America that the American black man has decided henceforth and forever to abandon the timid role of Uncle Tom-ism in his struggle for social justice, no matter what the sacrifice. On to Washington.”

In her book Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955, Carol Anderson described the clear picture of discrimination painted by the NAACP.

“As late as the summer of 1942,” the civil rights organization reported, “only 3 percent of the people working in war industries were colored. Only when there was virtually no one else to hire and almost every other labor source was exhausted” were African Americans even considered.

As a result, of the 29,215 defense contract employees in the New York area, “only 142 were Negroes.” In St. Louis, with a population of more than 100,000 African Americans, 56 defense factories “employed an average of three Negroes” each.

But not all the news was negative.

On June 25, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 8802, forbidding racial and religious discrimination in war industries, government training programs and government industries. Six months later, black pilots were training in Tuskegee for the first Army Air Corps Pursuit Squadron — the Tuskegee Airmen.

And for the first time, the New York Times reported in May 1941, a 12-month period passed without a lynching in the Deep South. That had not happened since 1882.

Matthew Bullock knew first hand about lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. He was born on Sept. 11, 1881.

When he was 8 years old, his parents fled the Deep South to escape a lynching bee. Born into slavery, the Bullocks had seven children and $10 in cash when they arrived in Massachusetts.

Matthew Bullock attended Everett High School and excelled in academics and sports. During his senior year, he was elected captain of the school’s baseball, football and track teams.

When he graduated, his father gave him $50 and told his son to find his own way.

Bullock found a way in 1900 when he enrolled at Dartmouth College. He again excelled in school and sports, playing varsity football for three years and track for four years. He was also a member of the glee club and Paleopitus, Dartmouth’s secret senior society.

After that, it was on to Harvard Law School, from which Bullock graduated in 1907. He paid his way by coaching at Massachusetts Agricultural College, now known as the University of Massachusetts.

Unable to find suitable work in Boston, Bullock took a position both teaching and serving as athletic director at Atlanta Baptist College, now known as Morehouse College. He taught courses in economics, history, Latin and sociology. He later moved to Normal, Ala., when he became dean of The State Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, today called Alabama A&M University.

Bullock stayed there for two years before returning to Boston, where he was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in 1917. Community-minded, he served as executive secretary of the Boston Urban League and special assistant attorney general for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

He quickly became part of the black society whose comings and goings were reported in the white press. The Boston Daily Globe reported on Oct. 31, 1920 that he and Mrs. Bullock were attending “the Open Door,” a Negro pageant, at Boston Symphony Hall.

The black population in Boston was quickly expanding in those days.

Between 1890 and 1920, the number of blacks grew from 8,125 to 16,350, due largely to northern migration of blacks from the Deep South.

Even though the black population doubled over that 30-year period, blacks constituted only 2.2 percent of the Boston’s population. In all, Boston was the fifth-largest city in the country. But the city had the nation’s 27th largest black population.

In 1920, roughly 45 percent of Boston’s blacks lived in the South End and Roxbury, primarily in Ward 13. Before political redistricting diluted black voting strength, Bullock, a Republican, decided to run for political office.

The 39-year-old Bullock lost a close race for state representative in 1920. He ran again two years later, but this time he won. His first legislative action reflected his racial sensibilities.

The bill was the first of the 1923 General Court legislative session, and described the Ku Klux Klan as a “menace to the public peace,” imposing a fine of $500 or two years in jail or both for anyone caught joining the group or aiding any of its members.