MAY 5, 1917
Eugene Jacques Bullard became the first Black American combat pilot.
After the near lynching of his father and hearing that Great Britain lacked such racism, the 12-year-old Georgia native stowed away on a ship headed for Scotland. From there, he moved to Liverpool, England, where he handled odd jobs before becoming a boxer, traveling across Europe and then settlng in Paris.
“It seems to me that the French democracy influenced the minds of both White and Black Americans there and helped us all to act like brothers as near as possible,” he said. “It convinced me, too, that God really did create all men equal, and it was easy to live that way.”
When World War I began, he was too young to fight for his adopted country, so he and other American expatriates joined the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of battles, he was wounded, and doctors believed he would never walk again.
No longer able to serve in the infantry, an American friend bet him $2,000 that he could not get into aviation. Taking on the challenge, he earned his “wings” and began fighting for the French Aéronautique Militaire. He addressed racism with words on his plane, “All Blood Runs Red,” and he nicknamed himself, “The Black Swallow of Death.”
On his flights, he reportedly took along a Rhesus monkey named “Jimmy.” He tried to join the U.S. Air Service, only to be turned away because he was Black. He became one of France’s most decorated war heroes, earning the French Legion of Honor.
After the war he bought a Paris nightclub, where Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong performed and eventually helped French officials ferret out Nazi sympathizers. After World War II ended, he moved to Harlem, but his widespread fame never followed him back to the U.S., where he eventually worked as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center in New York City (and once appeared on “The Today Show”). In 1954, the French government invited him to rekindle the flame at its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Upon his death from cancer two years later, he was buried with honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.
A sculpture of Bullard can be viewed in the Smithsonian National Space and Air Museum in Washington, D.C., a statue of him can be found outside the Museum of Aviation, and an exhibit on him can be seen inside the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, which posthumously gave him the rank of a second lieutenant. He is loosely portrayed in the 2006 film, “Flyboys”.