In my research about Paris between the Wars, I kept seeing a name I had never heard of before. Why had I never heard of this Black American so prominent in French history? As I read about him, and as you’ll read here, his story is so compelling that I had to include him in my book. I discovered remarkable people and events in history through research for Provenance, however, none were more remarkable than Eugene Jacques Bullard, America’s first black military aviator. Because of the color of his skin, he was never allowed to fly for his own country; so he flew for France and became one their most renowned and decorated military heroes.
He was born Eugene James Bullard, on October 9, 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. Bullard’s father, William, instilled in his children that they had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of the white majority’s determination “to keep blacks in their place.” William’s convictions nearly cost him his life and after witnessing his father’s near lynching, Eugene at age 11, with just five years of schooling, ran away from home fearing that he had seen a preview of his future in Columbus. He earned his way by tending and learning to race horses. An English family that hired him told him that racial discrimination did not exist in England. By the age of 17 in 1912, Bullard stowed away on a German ship leaving Norfolk, VA for Aberdeen, Scotland, seeking opportunity he could not find in the United States.
Bullard performed in vaudeville and earned money as a prize-fighter eventually settling in Paris. He joined the French army at the start of World War I, was wounded twice and awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the 1916 Battle of Verdun along side the Harlem Hellfighters, a battalion of African-American soldiers who were also left out of the history books. Bullard’s wounds made him unfit for infantry so he trained as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Air Force. He flew 20 combat missions and was credited with downing two German aircraft in the world’s fight for democracy. When the U.S. entered the War in 1917, they recruited American pilots from the Lafayette Flying Corps and though Bullard passed the physical and was renowned for his aeronautical skill, he was not accepted – only Caucasians were allowed to fly.
After World War I, Bullard settled in Paris where he was an entrepreneur. He owned the popular Paris nightclubs, Le Grand Duc and L’Escadrille, an athletic club and other successful business ventures. His circle of friends included Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. With the outbreak of World War II, Bullard, who spoke English, French and German, joined the French resistance, was wounded and barely escaped when the Germans occupied Paris.
Eugene Bullard returned to the United States to heal, planning to go back to Paris after the War. However his businesses were destroyed and the life he knew in Paris had moved on without him. With the money the French government paid him for the loss of his property during the war, he remained in New York City, working as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center and living in virtual obscurity.
However, the French people never forgot the war hero they nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death.” For his distinguished service to France during World War I and II, his adopted country awarded Bullard their highest military honors: Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal. In 1954, the French government asked him to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1959, he was named Knight of the Légion d’honneur. In 1960, when France’s President, General Charles de Gualle, visited the United States, it was Eugene Bullard he asked to visit with. Having no idea who he was, the State Department had to scramble to find him before de Gualle’s visit. Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66. He was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.
In 1992, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation donated a bronze bust of Bullard by sculptor Eddie Dixon to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where it is displayed in the Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air gallery. On September 14, 1994, the United States finally recognized the hero that could not fly for his own country by posthumously commissioning him the rank of Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Eugene Bullard as a Character in Provenance
I included Eugene Bullard as a character in Provenance because he embodied what the fictional characters in the book were searching for—the opportunity to live undefined by their race. My characters visit his popular night club Le Grand Duc, where celebrities and dignitaries in Paris vie for the attention of this dark-skinned American. Bullard illustrates the courage and commitment people of color had to have to achieve their potential. Bullard makes another appearance in Provenance during his later years in New York, again demonstrating that life extracts a cost for everything. In his courage, passion, conviction and pathos, Eugene Bullard is in every way a remarkable American that deserves more than his county gave him.
On the Historical Characters Resource page of this blog are the titles I used for my research on Eugene Bullard.
Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts I’m doing about some of the history I uncovered while researching Provenance. For posts in the series click on the From Provenance Research under Categories.