Published: 11 December 2023
By Jessica Phelan
via the RFI web site
The first African-American combat pilot flew not for his country, but for France. Born in the segregated south of the United States at the turn of the 20th century, Eugene Bullard moved to Paris and became one of a handful of black pilots to fight in World War I.
The way Eugene Bullard told it, he was always destined to come to France.
He grew up hearing stories of his father’s ancestors on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, and of the white French-speaking neighbours who supposedly adopted him, raised him Catholic and told him about a place called France. Perhaps Eugene, his lucky son, might even go there some day, William Bullard suggested.
Eugene would make it to France; he would even risk his life for it, and in ways that no black American had ever done before.
France would repay him with medals and glory that he never got back home. People would even begin calling him Eugene “Jacques” Bullard instead of Eugene James.
So is it any wonder, when he came to write his memoirs, racing against the cancer that would eventually kill him, that he saw his fate as interwoven with France – the place where he made his name, and made history?
Escape to Europe
Bullard’s memoirs don’t always match the historical record, and they leave a lot of gaps.
But it’s clear he started in the kind of circumstances you want to get out of. Born in the cotton town of Columbus, Georgia, in 1894, to loving but poor parents with ten children to feed, he grew up with slavery in living memory and segregation in full force.
At eight or nine years old, he was at home when a mob came looking for his father, who had fought with a white foreman at work, and who now waited silently inside, a loaded shotgun in hand, until the attackers eventually left.
Three years later, Bullard ran away, and a few years after that he stowed away on a merchant ship bound for Europe. In 1912, in his mid-teens, he landed in the Scottish port of Aberdeen and discovered, as he put it, “a new world”.
He made his way south to London, picking up work on the docks or in music halls and eventually boxing for money. By November 1913, he was prizefighting in Paris.
Read the entire article on the RFI web site.
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