Bullock was born in Louisa County in or around 1830. His parents, Abraham and Cynthia Bullock, were enslaved, meaning that their five children—John, Burkley, Albert, Robert, and Martha—entered life as chattel in the eyes of state and federal law. The Bullocks were enslaved by John R. Jones, a wealthy financier and merchant engaged in the business of 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, according to his contemporary James Alexander, “and acted as the financial agent of several of the most substantial planters and farmers of the county.” Jones owned a house at 109 Jefferson Street known as Social Hall, where he lived with “a large family of ten children.” According to Bullock family history, Bullock performed the duties of a house servant for the Joneses.
During this time, without Jones’s knowledge, Bullock learned to read and write from another enslaved household servant, Peter Fossett. Born and raised by his enslaved parents at Monticello, Fossett was taught to read by Thomas Jefferson’s grandson Lewis Randolph. When Jefferson died in July 1826, Fossett was sold at a mass auction, “along with his mother and seven siblings,” and purchased by Jones. Fossett taught Bullock—who was fifteen years his junior—to read “by light wood knots in the late hours of night when everyone was supposed to be asleep,” Bullock’s son Charles later recalled. “They would steal away to a deserted cabin, over the hill from the big house, out of sight.” According to Bullock family historian Jean L. Henderson, when Jones discovered that young Burkley could “read and perform other learned tasks … he was assigned head of the commissary and possibly [worked] in Colonel Jones’s store on Main Street, Charlottesville.”
Empowered with literacy and well-schooled in the arts of resistance, Bullock sought to liberate himself and his family. He ran off at least once, perhaps with the aid of a self-forged pass, getting as far as the Ohio River. Horace Tonsler, a formerly enslaved man from Charlottesville, related the story in an interview as he had heard it from Bullock himself.
“Yes, I know of a case of runaway slave, Berkeley Bullock.… One day we was drivin’ up de road an’ he showed me de very road he used when he fust ’scaped. Dis road led to Bath County. He said he traveled at night by de moonshine. Said he would feel ’round de trees an’ whichever side de moss grew on, he knoed dat was de north direction. 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.”
Socrates Maupin, Professor and Faculty Chair at the University of Virginia
In 1855 Jones, who had run into financial trouble, auctioned off much of his personal property. Bullock and his mother, Cynthia Bullock, were sold, along with household furnishings, to the highest bidders. Court records indicate that Jones sold Bullock’s mother to “Wm. Brand” for $5 and Bullock to “S. Maupin” for $1,205. (The fate of Bullock’s father, Abraham, is unknown.) “S. Maupin” was most likely Socrates Maupin, the University of Virginia chemistry professor and faculty chairman who lived on the University Lawn in Pavilion VIII. According to the 1860 U.S. Census Schedule of Slave Inhabitants of Albemarle County’s St. Anne’s Parish, Maupin enslaved eleven people, including one (unnamed) whose description matches that of Bullock: a twenty-eight-year-old male, whose “color” was given as M for “mulatto.” Specific information on Bullock during this time—the tasks he performed for Maupin, the knowledge and skills he may have acquired, and the general conditions under which he labored—has yet to be revealed at the time of this writing.
Family tradition affirms that Bullock secured freedom for himself and his mother sometime before the end of the Civil War. “Somehow he was freed first,” Fanny Lee Nolian Bowles Leach, Bullock’s granddaughter, wrote in her memoir, “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.” An archival source highlighted in the work of historian Gayle M. Schulman indicates that “Berkeley” seized his freedom during the waning days of the war, after the occupation of Charlottesville by Union troops and the surrender of the University of Virginia. In a letter dated April 7, 1865, Mary L. Minor—the daughter of University of Virginia Law professor John B. Minor—informed her aunt that “Dr Maupin lost one of his horses & Berkeley was discovered in the act of riding off the other. He of course went taking his family along.” The “family” Minor mentions likely included Bullock’s wife, Mary Ann Washington Bullock, whom he married sometime in the 1840s or 1850s, and a number of their children. (The 1870 census lists Bullock as the head of a household that included “Mary” Bullock and eight children, at least six of whom might have been born by 1865.)
Landowner and Businessman
Like many formerly enslaved people 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. The Bullocks partnered on the purchase with another African American couple, William and Caroline Brown, who used a house and lot they owned in Charlottesville to secure the $3,000 deed of trust.
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,” according to William Brown’s petition to the chancery court to delay a public sale. Brown’s petition said that the farm would yield sufficient profits to pay off the notes by spring. Ultimately, however, the property was sold, and Brown and his family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In December 1871, Bullock purchased a thirty-five-acre Albemarle County lot from John Shackleford, a seventy-four-year-old white farmer, for $435. By 1880, Bullock owned seventy-five acres in the vicinity of Hydraulic and Earlysville Roads, in what became known as Ivy Creek. 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. According to the U.S. Census, four of Bullock’s five grown children had struck out on their own, three teenaged children were listed as living at home and attending school, and four children ages ten and under rounded out the family. For more than fifteen years he and his extended family made the Ivy Creek community their home. Bullock was one of the founders of the Ivy Creek Baptist Church, today known as Union Ridge, and was active in the church throughout his life.
Sometime around 1888, Bullock moved with his family to the newly incorporated city of Charlottesville to pursue new economic opportunities. The 1888–1889 Charlottesville City Directory listed him as the proprietor of a restaurant at Union Station, opposite the Virginia Midland Railway junction. Wright’s Railroad Dining Room, owned by a white man and staffed by Black cooks and waiters, competed for business at the same location. In addition to running a restaurant, Bullock found seasonal employment as a steward in the mountain resorts of Virginia.
Real Estate Investor and Broker
Bullock was also a real estate investor and broker. Over the course of several years, Bullock purchased and sold more than a dozen properties in the city of Charlottesville. He also served from time to time as a financial backer for friends and family members who lacked the resources to purchase property on their own. In 1888, for example, he paid part of the purchase price for two lots on Gospel Hill in Charlottesville, only to give up all interest in the property when the cosigner, Thomas Sammons, refunded his investment as previously arranged.
His success as a financier may have led him to conceive of a more broadly collaborative plan for promoting property ownership among African Americans. In April 1889, Bullock and eight other African American businessmen 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. An investor could purchase one share in the company for $50, paid in monthly installments of $1. The company proposed to “purchase, hold, lease, rent, improve, sell, exchange, develop and otherwise deal in real estate” and to buy and sell real estate on commission. Among the company’s aims was “to extend aid and assistance, financial and otherwise, to persons of limited means in purchasing homes.”
In its first month of operation, reported the Richmond Planet, the company purchased ten city lots and fifteen or twenty more bordering the city. “Thus you see Charlottesville is blooming,” the article continued, “and with it booms 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.”
In October 1891, the company held what was touted as the first county fair to be organized by African Americans. The Richmond Planet wrote that “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 mile-long grand procession, riding on horseback.
A One-Dimensional Portrait
Bullock’s restaurant at Union Station catered to University of Virginia students with such success that in 1890 the University of Virginia yearbook, Corks and Curls, published a character sketch of Bullock. The piece is one of five brief sketches of African American men whose daily interactions with students and faculty made them familiar faces on grounds. It draws on nostalgic plantation stereotypes popularized in the writing of Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, characterizing Bullock as a nervous but friendly proprietor, ever willing to share his “corn-field philosophy” or engage students in “exasperating conversation” over fried chicken and soda biscuits. The students saw in Bullock what they wanted to see: an illiterate former slave, “one of the best surviving representatives of the old plantation hand.” They knew nothing of his education, his family, his social world, or his interior life as a Black man trying to secure a foothold in the New South economy. Nor did they consider that they saw only one side of him: the public side of a man well-schooled in domestic service and the etiquette of race relations in the Jim Crow South. 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.
Bullock died in late January 1908. His headstone lists his date of death as January 23, 1908. The Daily Progress—a white-owned Charlottesville paper that typically paid scant attention to African American social affairs—published the news on page one on January 25: “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.”
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.… 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.” 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 twenty years earlier.
Bullock was survived by his second wife, Harriet Fleming Bullock, and ten of his children. (His first wife, Mary Ann Washington Bullock, died in 1889.) He was buried in a family plot at Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville.