No. 11439 389 Washington Street, circa 1970, from Boston Public LIbrary
Toni Bullock, undertaker to communities of color
TONI L. BULLOCK
Globe Correspondent / April 1, 2011
Toni L. Bullock came from an era when most funerals in the black community were quiet affairs held in churches or small storefront funeral parlors.
Her own mother’s funeral, when Mrs. Bullock was growing up in North Carolina in the 1930s, was in the family home. Then a teenager, she thought her mother, like so many others, merited a grander send-off.
“Her mom was buried modestly, and she just felt her mom deserved better,’’ said Mrs. Bullock’s daughter, Dr. Kim A. Bullock. “Her pride was to raise and elevate the industry and have black families be proud of their last due for their loved ones.’’
As a result of her efforts, generations mourned their loved ones in the stately Dorchester mansion she opened in 1958 as the Bullock Funeral Home. Mrs. Bullock, who became an undertaker at age 23 and was the only black woman in the New England Institute of Embalming and Anatomy’s class of 1946, died Feb. 18 at her Dorchester home after a brief illness. She was 88.
Her business, including a second funeral home opened in 1973 in Mattapan, lasted more than 40 years. She gave up her license and retired in 1999 amid state investigators’ complaints that she had failed to give customers itemized bills and did not keep detailed financial records.
“She was a positive example by her presence and her tenacity,’’ said Charles C. Yancey, a Boston city councilor who buried his mother with Mrs. Bullock as undertaker.
“She had a positive spirit, but you knew she meant business,’’ said Yancey.
He sponsored a City Council proclamation this month honoring Mrs. Bullock “for her ability and dedication to work with leaders from business, religious, political, sports, and entertainment communities to focus on improving the common needs and services of Boston’s communities of color.’’
Born Lessie Maye Harris in Rich Square, N.C., Mrs. Bullock studied at North Carolina State College for two years until World War II broke out. She joined the Army and served in the Negro Women’s Army Corps as a radio operator, stationed in Des Moines.
After the war, she came to Boston with her husband, Adolphous G. Bullock, whom she had met in Norfolk, Va. They were married 65 years.
“The thread running through her life is determination,’’ said her daughter, an emergency room physician who lives near Washington, D.C. “Her life was not built on other people’s ideas or suggestions of what she should do.’’
When Mrs. Bullock spotted the mansion she wanted for her business, she knocked on the door of the Fottler House and offered to buy the Georgian revival structure, which was built in the 1890s for one of Dorchester’s most prominent businessmen.
Her business plan faced opposition in the predominantly white, affluent neighborhood. She sought help from the young US senator, John F. Kennedy, and won a peaceful coexistence with her neighbors, she said.
The Bullock Funeral Home carved out a multicultural niche. Clients included gypsies, Haitians, and Jamaicans, all bringing their own customs.
“She was the first to become accommodating to people from different cultures,’’ said her daughter, who recalls growing up in the rooms above the Dorchester funeral home. “You could hear the music coming up the stairs and the crying, though my mother did try to shield me from it when I was very young.’’
Jack E. Robinson, an attorney who grew up in Dorchester, described Mrs. Bullock as a second mother. She “was a beacon to young people in the community and pushed them to excel in education, business, and life,’’ Robinson said.
He recalled Mrs. Bullock’s tales of campaigning in the 1950s for a young, black attorney who ran for state office and lost three times. The candidate was Edward Brooke, who was elected to the US Senate in 1966, the first black to win a seat in that chamber by popular vote.
“She was a wonderful person,’’ said Muriel Turk, 93, of Cambridge, a friend of Mrs. Bullock’s since the 1940s. “She was pretty inside and out. She lived her life for others.’’
Mrs. Bullock was remembered for hosting stylish parties at the mansion, where staff would serve tea while music was played on the grand piano. She always wore heels and a single strand of pearls.
At the height of her success in the 1970s, she drove a blue Mercedes and handed out money to neighborhood youngsters after they endured her interrogation about their schoolwork and plans for the future, according to her family. She and her husband sent their daughter to private school and then to Yale.
Mrs. Bullock could be equally comfortable throwing Saturday night kitchen parties where she served cornbread and soup made from chicken’s feet, Turk added. “We would just sit and laugh and talk. She was like a sister to me,’’ she said.
Community leaders rallied around Mrs. Bullock when state investigators threatened legal action over her recordkeeping. The state did not allege fraud or theft.
“I just want out; I’m tired now,’’ Mrs. Bullock told the Globe in 1999.
She retired and received several local honors, including a joint award from St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Roxbury and Union United Methodist Church in the South End calling her “A Drum Major for Justice.’’
“That meant so much to her,’’ her daughter said. “Those who grew up under her wing and were influenced by her rose up to support her and say, ‘Here are the fruits of your labor, enjoy those fruits.’ She felt good about that.’’
Besides her husband and daughter, there are no other survivors.
Services have been held. Burial was in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston.
J.M. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2011 Globe Newspaper Company.