October 9, 1895 – Birth of Eugene Bullard, World’s First African-American Combat Pilot

Eugene Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia on this day in history. At age 11, after seeing his father have to go into hiding from a lynch mob, Eugene ran away, dreaming, he later said, of a place “where white people treated colored people like human beings.”

In 1912, now 16, he stowed away on a ship leaving Norfolk, Virginia for Germany. He got off in Scotland, and found that there, people treated him “just like one of their own.” He gravitated from there first to England and then to France, which he loved.

At age 19, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion to fight for his adopted country against Germany in the Great War. He was seriously injured at Verdun. His heroism would earn him the Croix de Guerre military decoration, although he was thereafter unable to participate in ground combat.

During his convalescence, he met a French air service officer who promised to help him become an aircraft gunner. In October, 1916, Bullard began his training, but then he asked to train as a pilot instead, and received his license seven months later. When celebrating, he recalled later, “by midnight every American in Paris knew that an American Negro by the name of Eugene Bullard, born in Georgia, had obtained a military pilot’s license.”

But, as PBS reports:

As for Americans back in America, they remained ignorant of Bullard’s achievement. It was not reported in American newspapers or magazines, save a small item in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis, a journal produced by the NAACP, which said only that Bullard had ‘enlisted in the Aviation-Corps.’ Bullard’s biographer Craig Lloyd notes that the American military had privately decided not to accept African Americans, and the media silence ‘may have been a result of censorship, official or self-imposed, by the American press.’”

After America entered the war in April of 1917, Bullard  applied to fly for the American Expeditionary Forces but was rejected. Then French military authorities ordered him out of aviation and into a noncombat position in the infantry. The reasons remain opaque but it is not unreasonable to assume racism was behind it.

PBS notes:

. . . it is clear that Jim Crow had arrived in France with the American Expeditionary Force in late 1917 and early 1918. As [Craig Lloyd, author of a biography on Bullard] explains, American officers believed that the morale of their white American soldiers would suffer if they ‘saw black American troops enjoying freedom from segregation and discrimination, and especially the freedom to associate with white women.’ Measures were taken to disparage black troops; white officers publicly accused them of everything from cowardice to rape.”

Eugene Bullard – the first African American fighter pilot.

This was not idle speculation by Bullard’s biographer. A [supposedly] confidential memo published in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis in 1919 written by a French liaison to the American military in France, signed by Colonel J.L.A. Linard of the American Expeditionary Force Headquarters, expressed white American concerns about the treatment of black soldiers in France.

Linard pointed out that if a gulf were not maintained between the races in the U.S., the “menace of degeneracy” would loom, given “the increasing number of Negroes in the United States.”

He goes on to say:

As this danger does not exist for the French race, the French public has become accustomed to treating the Negro with familiarity and indulgence.

This indulgence and this familiarity [These] are matters of grievous concern to the Americans. They consider them an affront to their national policy. They are afraid that contact with the French will inspire in black Americans aspirations which to them (the whites) appear intolerable. It is of the utmost importance that every effort be made to avoid profoundly estranging American opinion.”

He further points out that in the U.S.:

. . . the black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience, and for his tendency toward undue familiarity. . . . The vices of the Negro are a constant menace to the American who has to repress them sternly.”

In so far as the American presence in Europe was critical for the war effort, Linard concluded, inter alia:

We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We may be courteous and amiable with these last, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as with the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with [the blacks] them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service. . . . Make a point of keeping the native cantonment population from ‘spoiling’ the Negroes.”

Still, it remained better for blacks overseas than in America. Bullard, whose wounds entitled him to French citizenship, remained in Paris after the war. He was successful in business and, as PBS observes, “lived at the starry center of a Parisian post-war society; Josephine Baker babysat for him; Langston Hughes washed dishes at his cabaret; Ernest Hemingway based a character on him.”

When WWII began, Bullard once again volunteered to fight for France, and was wounded again. He was forced to flee Europe, and escaped to New York. There, he once again encountered the prejudice he had fled to avoid.

In 1949, for example, while attending a concert held by Black entertainer and activist Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York to benefit the Civil Rights Congress, a mob attacked the concert-goers with baseball bats and stones.

Bullard was among those attacked after the concert. (One hundred and fourteen people were wounded during the fights.) He was knocked to the ground and beaten by an angry mob, which included members of the state and local law enforcement. The attack was captured on film and can be seen in the 1970s documentary “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” and the Oscar-winning documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier, “Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist.” None of the assailants was ever prosecuted. Graphic pictures of Bullard being beaten by two policemen, a state trooper, and a concert-goer were published in Susan Robeson’s biography of her grandfather, The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.

Later when he took the bus to go back home the driver ordered him to sit at the back of the bus, Eugene refused and the bus driver beat him. He was wounded at the left eye and has had to wear glasses until the end of his life.

Eugene Bullard being beaten at the Robeson concert

The French continued to honor him however. Bullard received 15 decorations in all from the government of France. In 1954, the French government invited Bullard to Paris to be one of the three men chosen to rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. In 1959, he was made a Chevalier (Knight) of the Légion d’honneur by General Charles de Gaulle, who called Bullard a “véritable héros français” (“true French hero”). He also was awarded the Médaille militaire, another high military distinction.

Bullard and an unidentified person lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris in 1954.

Bullard died in New York City 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 the New York City borough of Queens.

Thirty-three years after his death, the United States Air Force appointed him a second lieutenant.

Bullard exhibit at the National Museum of the United States Air Force

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: