Eugene Bullard, a Pilot’s Struggle for Freedom

Published: 7 February 2024

By Diane de Vignemont
via the France-Amérique web site


Eugene Bullard in his French aviator uniform, Paris, July 4, 1917. © Agence Rol/Bibliothèque nationale de France

He flew for liberty, equality, and fraternity. This grandson of Georgia slaves volunteered for the Foreign Legion during World War I and became the first African American fighter pilot, a hero of French aviation – before being disgraced, sidelined, and forgotten by his native country.

At the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a small jazz band plays Django Reinhardt’s “La Marseillaise.” The modest pine coffin is half-open, revealing a Foreign Legion uniform. On October 13, 1961, France paid its final respects to Eugene Bullard. France-Amérique was in the front row. “His name will go down in French-American history,” wrote our reporter, “as a pure and noble example of an American who gave his body and soul to France.”

In February every year, as part of Black History Month, our two countries commemorate the first African American fighter pilot in history, who served France in both world wars. But while official tributes focus on the military exploits of the “Black Swallow of Death,” they tend to gloss over his pioneering anti-racist struggle. From the cotton fields of Georgia to Roaring Twenties Paris and the civil rights movement in Harlem, this Jim Crow refugee was also a staunch activist.

Objective: France

Eugene James Bullard (he later changed his middle name to “Jacques”) was born in Columbus, Georgia, on October 9, 1895. Like all descendants of slaves at the time, he had no identity of his own. His family name was that of his paternal ancestors’ White owners. Worse still, the boy was a “half-breed,” born to a Black father and a Native American mother from the Muscogee tribe. He was just eight years old when a group of White men tried to lynch his father. A traumatized Eugene Bullard chose exile.

“From an early age, this child despised injustice and set his sights on freedom,” explains Monique Seefried, commissioner of the United States WWI Centennial Commission. “And as Lafayette had left an extraordinary mark on Georgia, Eugene Bullard made France his El Dorado.” His father, who was of Martinican heritage, passed down his admiration for France as the land of human rights. The young boy was particularly impressed by stories about General Dumas, the West Indian hero of the French Revolution. “My father had told me about France, where a man was judged by his merit, not the color of his skin,” he wrote in his diary. “And that was where I wanted to go.”

At the age of eleven, Eugene Bullard fled Columbus. He emancipated himself not once, but twice on his journey to the East Coast. First, by joining a bohemian circus troupe who nicknamed him “Gypsy”; and second, on the racetrack, where he rode to victory against White jockeys. (Black people were banned from competing in the sport shortly after.) Upon reaching Virginia, he embarked as a stowaway on a cargo ship bound for the Old Continent.

“I felt like I was born into a new world,” wrote Eugene Bullard the day after his arrival in Scotland. He was shocked to find that Europeans didn’t see him as a Black man, but rather as an American. He joined a boxing club and a vaudeville show, inspired by other exiles who had fled segregation. As a member of Belle Davis’ troupe, he poked fun of American racial stereotypes in front of European audiences, who laughed along with him, not at him. Trained by the “Dixie Kid” and drawing admiration from Jack Johnson, two legendary African American boxers, Eugene Bullard toured Europe and North Africa, winning victory after victory. In late 1913, a fight finally brought him to France. “I was as excited as a kid on Christmas morning,” he wrote as he settled in Paris.

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