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This African-American Refugee Found Freedom In Canada

Posted: 02/04/2013 5:02 pm

"Canadian Judge Frees North Carolina Negro"

The above is the title of a New York Times article published on March 3, 1922. The "North Carolina Negro" being referred to is Matthew Bullock. This is his story:

In 1911, Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, passed the following Order in Council:

"His excellency in Council, in virtue of the provisions of Sub-section c of Section 38 of the Immigration Act, is pleased to Order and it is hereby Ordered as follows: For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."

This Order, which effectively barred immigration of blacks to Canada, had the effect of law and was not repealed until 1962. As such, in the early 1920s when 19-year-old Matthew Bullock, an African-American, and World War I veteran, arrived in Hamilton, Ontario to escape being lynched in the American South, legally and literally, Matthew Bullock was as good as dead.

Bullock's troubles began in Norlina, North Carolina when Matthew's brother, 16-year-old Plummer, attempted to return 10 cents worth of apples which he discovered were rotten soon after they were purchased. After making his request, an argument ensued between Plummer and the store-keeper, a white man, as the latter refused to accept the returned apples. So heated the exchange became, that threats were allegedly exchanged between Plummer and the store-keeper.

Later that evening, a group of armed white men went looking for Plummer. The group eventually confronted a group of black men and gun-fire was exchanged between the two groups. No one was hurt in the gun-battle. However, the incident resulted in Plummer and his brother, Matthew, being charged with attempting to incite a riot. Both men were shocked to have such charges laid against them as they maintained that they were miles away when the events occurred.

The day after the incident, Plummer was arrested and jailed. The next morning, though, he was broken out of the jail by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members who, within hours of kidnapping Plummer, tortured, shot, castrated, hung and set fire to the boy.

Unaware of the fate suffered by his little brother, on instruction from his father, Matthew Bullock fled Norlina, driving north and in hopes finding safety and security on Canadian soil. Matthew drove directly to Canada, stopping only to sleep, eat and use the bathroom.

Matthew only knew Canada as the country famed for being the Promised Land of freedom to which many of his black ancestors escaped slavery by way of the Underground Railroad. Thus, one can only imagine the immensity of the shock, fear, pain and humiliation he suffered when he finally arrived at the Canadian border: He was denied entry into Canada due to the aforementioned Order in Council that was passed by former Prime Minister Laurier.

Not to be easily deterred and feeling that his life remained in peril in the U.S., Matthew decided to take drastic measures to secure entry into Canada. After spending hours observing Lake Erie's flow of ice and water, at a spot just south of the rushing chute of Niagara Falls, Matthew ventured out, literally hopping, skipping and jumping from one ice-patch to the next until he arrived on Canadian soil; tired, cold and wet, but in Canada.

Matthew quickly continued his trek north, heading for Hamilton, Ontario where he knew there was a small community of blacks made up of the descendants of fellow African-Americans who had escaped U.S. slavery just a few decades before. When he arrived in Hamilton, Matthew was quickly able to settle into the black community there, adopting a new name and gaining employment as a skilled construction worker.

Not long after his arrival, however, while out one day in early January 1922, Matthew was approached by the police who demanded that he prove that he was not a vagrant. Unable to furnish satisfactory papers because of his illegal status, Matthew was charged with vagrancy and entering Canada illegally.

The ordeal of Matthew Bullock could have fallen into obscurity at the bottom of the bins of forgotten Canadian history. However, after Matthew's arrest and the revelation of his true identity in mid-January 1922, a white bounty-hunter in Hamilton decided to write a letter to the Governor Morrison of North Carolina detailing Matthew's whereabouts. This led Governor Morrison, a self-proclaimed white-supremacist and advocate of lynch law, to immediately write to Canadian officials demanding that Matthew be extradited so that he could stand trial for the charges laid against him in North Carolina.

The North Carolina Governor's extradition request resulted in the ignition of a media frenzy as major newspapers in Canada and the U.S., including the New York Times and The Globe (now the Globe and Mail) began to immediately publicize Matthew's incredible story. The immense publicity sparked intense debate in the public on both sides of the border, as wide media coverage roused many Canadians and Americans who openly expressed their views and thoughts on the story and were most intrigued by the issues it raised.

From a black-letter law perspective, the outcome looked very grim for 19-year-old Matthew. First, the U.S. and the U.K. had an extradition treaty that bound Canada because our country was yet to gain full control over its foreign policy. Secondly, there was Canada's own federally legislated ban on the immigration of Blacks enacted a decade earlier. In the face of this legal reality, all Matthew had was his plea and the advocacy of black and non-black advocates and citizens which asked that Matthew not be extradited because at best he would not get a fair hearing, and at worst (the more likely result) he would lynched like his younger brother before him.

Canadian and U.S. media and advocates on both sides of the issues kept the case live and well discussed in the public, especially since an NAACP lawyer from New York was hired to defend Matthew, and a collective of white citizens of Hamilton amassed many signatures on a petition demanding that Matthew be extradited.

At the end of the day, however, it was left to an Ontario judge to rule on the matter.

In late January, 1922 an Ontario judge weighed Matthew's charge for inciting a riot against the fact that he was a 19-year-old war veteran who upon arriving in Canada, immediately contributed to the country as a skilled employee about whom no one could make anything but positive remarks. Considering this, the judge ruled that Matthew should not be extradited, but released and allowed to remain in Canada for having demonstrated himself to be a good immigrant.

Despite a new wave of public excitement that this caused, Matthew's legal troubles were not yet over.

The Ontario judge's decision infuriated American and Canadian white-supremacists. This inspired a racist fire of new energy to get Matthew extradited and in result, a new and more serious charge was laid against Matthew. This time the charge was for the attempted murder of one of the White men who was allegedly shot-at in the incident that started this whole chain of events.

With this, Matthew was rearrested in Hamilton in mid-February. Judge Snider of the County Court in Hamilton, presided over the extradition matter to treat this new charge. The judge ultimately ordered that Matthew be arrested and held until authorities in North Carolina could present to the County Court evidence showing that they had a prima facie case legitimating Matthew's charge for attempted murder.

The result of the judge's decision to set out this requirement for the release of Matthew to U.S. authorities ended up saving Matthew's life. This is because the North Carolina state's case against Matthew relied almost exclusively on eye-witness testimony. Realizing that it would be too costly and likely found to be unconstitutional to force witnesses to appear before a judge in another country to provide testimony, Governor Morrison gave up his blood-thirsty hunt for Matthew.

Thus without any satisfactory evidence presented against Matthew in the Hamilton County Court, Matthew was released as a free man on March 3, 1922.

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***

Sources:
Sarah-Jane Mathieu, "North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, ..." - Page 174

Vann R. Newkirk, "Lynching in North Carolina: a history, 1865-1941" - Page 44

Mark Robert Schneider, "We return fighting: the civil rights movement in the jazz age" - Page 195

 

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