Eugene Bullard, a Pilot’s Struggle for Freedom

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

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.

Eugene Bullard during his European boxing career, ca. 1913. © U.S. Air Force
Portrait of Eugene Bullard in his French uniform (a Croix de Guerre is pinned to his chest), in front of a biplane bearing his motto and an aerial combat scene. © Tinker Air Force Base History Office

“All Blood Runs Red”

World War I broke out a year later. Adding an extra year to his real age, Eugene Bullard enlisted in the Foreign Legion. He spent time in the trenches of the Somme and Champagne, before requesting a transfer to the French army. He joined the troops of the 170th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Swallows of Death.” After being wounded at Verdun and awarded the Croix de Guerre, he received a visit from a reporter writing for The Saturday Evening Post. Will Irwin, one of the first American correspondents to arrive in Europe, remarked that French democracy seemed to have “rubbed off” on the infantryman, who had “grown accustomed to looking on White men as equals.”

He couldn’t have put it better. While convalescing in Paris, Eugene Bullard decided to take on a crazy challenge and apply to become a pilot. “You know, there aren’t any [Black people] in aviation,” said an American friend. “I sure do,” he replied. “That’s why I want to get into it.” In late 1916, he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of U.S. volunteers flying under French command. “By midnight,” he wrote in his diary, “every American in Paris knew that [a Black American] by the name of Eugene Bullard, born in Georgia, had obtained a military pilot’s license.” Around this time, back in the United States, his brother was lynched on his own farm. More than ever, Eugene Bullard was determined to defend his adopted country and carve out a place for himself within it.

At the front, this descendant of slaves lived alongside his White compatriots. “It seemed to me that the French democracy influenced the minds of both White and Black Americans there, and helped us to act like brothers,” he later said. On the fuselage of his Spad VII fighter plane, he painted a scarlet heart pierced by a dagger, along with a phrase in French: Tout sang qui coule est rouge (“All blood runs red”), which became his motto. Accompanied by his mascot, a little monkey named Jimmy (perhaps in defiance of Jim Crow laws), he shot down two enemy planes and earned a new nickname: “The Black Swallow of Death.”

Eugene Bullard, wearing his French uniform, with a group of American soldiers in France during World War I. © U.S. Air Force

Jim Crow in France

While the French press enthusiastically covered the young pioneer’s career, America remained silent. Only the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Crisis, reported on his meteoric rise. Eugene Bullard was a thorn in the side of the U.S. of the time. His exploits in a racially mixed unit disproved one of the founding principles of segregation – the supposed inferiority of Black people. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the Expeditionary Forces imposed their racist standards in France. Eugene Bullard was the only member of the Lafayette Flying Corps not to be transferred to the U.S. Army. He was told that he was of insufficient rank and had “flat feet,” before being sent back to his French unit.

Yet despite facing the discrimination he thought he had left behind in Georgia, the pilot persisted. He dreamed of shooting down three more enemy planes to reach the five required to be named an “ace.” Then, he hoped, “Americans would finally be forced to recognize my abilities and let me join up.” But after a French officer insulted him using the N-word, the former boxer raised his fists and fought back. His name was immediately crossed out in the French air force’s records, just like his comrades killed in action. Without warning, he was demoted to the infantry. Then, when America instructed the French army to maintain segregation within its own ranks, it obeyed. Eugene Bullard was relegated to the duties of janitor and kept away from combat soldiers.

After America, it was France’s turn to disappoint him. The fallen pilot never received his Certificate of Gratitude, issued to all American volunteers by the French War Ministry. Despite France’s compromises, and like many African Americans who had enjoyed new freedom across the Atlantic, Eugene Bullard settled in Paris after the armistice. He became a masseur, private coach, and jazz musician, trained by bandleader Louis Mitchell. This was the beginning of the “Black Craze,” when African American cabarets in Montmartre and Pigalle became the epicenter of Parisian nightlife.

At Zelli’s, a club on Rue Fontaine that prided itself on welcoming “everybody who’s anybody,” Eugene Bullard befriended the elite of the Lost Generation. He rubbed shoulders with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, and Elsa Maxwell, and he inspired Ernest Hemingway to write the character of the Black drummer in The Sun Also Rises (1926). In the Paris press and in The Baltimore Afro-American, a newspaper committed to opposing segregation, Eugene Bullard earned a reputation as a “cracker tamer”! He was said to have become “one of the staunchest defenders of the [Black] race in Paris against the invasion of American color prejudice,” and was almost killed in fights on several occasions.

Exiled Again

Despite so many ups and downs, Eugene Bullard remembered the Roaring Twenties as his “golden years.” He obtained French nationality and married Marcelle Straumann in 1923. This interracial marriage, which would undoubtedly have seen him lynched in the United States, was celebrated at the aptly named Brasserie Universelle. The following year, he took over Le Grand Duc on Rue Pigalle and became a leading figure in the African American community. Poet Langston Hughes, who had just arrived from Rotterdam, washed dishes, while Ada “Bricktop” Smith, Florence “Embry” Jones, and Louis Armstrong entertained the public. The owner welcomed Chaplin, Picasso, Man Ray, and Prince Edward VIII. After his divorce, he even received help from Josephine Baker in raising his two daughters, before opening a gym and another cabaret, L’Escadrille.

But by the early 1930s, the threat of Nazism was growing. Back in 1919, Eugene Bullard had written in The Chicago Defender: “It is time to finish with these ridiculous prejudices of colors of people who forget too soon the German danger of yesterday and the German threat of tomorrow.” When war broke out, he first joined French intelligence, tracking down the Nazi agents who frequented his establishments. He then returned to the infantry and resumed the fight against Germany. Wounded while defending the city of Orléans, he took the news of the armistice as an insult. The republic that had welcomed him was no more, and he had no illusions about the Vichy regime.

That summer, Eugene Bullard left France. “Once again, he had to fight for his status as an American citizen,” says Monique Seefried. “The U.S. consul refused to issue a visa to a Black man in a French uniform.” After a harrowing journey across Spain and the Atlantic, Eugene Bullard wrote: “I’ll never forget how delighted I was by the sight of the Statue of Liberty.” At Ellis Island, the American Legion celebrated the return of expatriated veterans with cheers and applause, yet he received no such honor. He found refuge in Harlem, where he rented a room in a dilapidated building, a far cry from his exuberant Parisian years. In France-Amérique, readers learned that he had traveled with photos and autographs of his illustrious friends, “which he enjoys looking through on days when he is feeling down.”

In New York City, Eugene Bullard was a complete nobody. When he asked to join the veterans association of the Foreign Legion, he received an anonymous letter in reply: “Your extended sojourn abroad has perhaps made you forget that in the States, Whites and coloreds don’t mix.” Dressed in his uniform, his pilot’s wings pinned to his jacket, the former legionnaire was still brave enough to attend one of the group’s meetings. Despite his efforts, only the Free French welcomed him into their ranks. With these supporters of General de Gaulle, most of them exiles like himself, he joined the France Forever organization and campaigned for the Liberation. But the racial laws passed by the Vichy regime left him with no desire to return to France.

Eugene Bullard assaulted by White police officers outside a concert by African American singer Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York, 1949. © Paul Robeson House & Museum
Eugene Bullard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, 1954. © U.S. Air Force

The Hero of Harlem

After the war, Eugene Bullard went from job to job. He worked as a longshoreman on Staten Island, a security guard in Brooklyn, and a French perfume salesman. In his free time, he performed Louis Armstrong classics and gradually became part of the Harlem community. Eager to contribute to the nascent civil rights movement, he offered his services to the NAACP. But no one knew what to make of this strange man who loved recounting his madcap adventures. In 1949, at the age of 54, he was wounded during a race riot in Peekskill, a small town north of New York City. On the front page of the French daily Ce soir, under the headline “Pogrom in the U.S.A.,” readers learned that he lost an eye after being beaten by the police, who had fought in support of the racist mob.

France had not forgotten its hero. In 1954, an older, somewhat weaker Eugene Bullard returned to Paris and rekindled the flame of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. A France-Amérique journalist recorded his heartfelt thanks: “I have served France the best I can. She has shown me the true meaning of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. I can never thank her enough for all she has taught me, for all I owe her.” Five years later, upon receiving the Légion d’Honneur at the French consulate in New York, he declared: “The United States is my mother, and I love my mother, but as far as France is concerned, she is my mistress.”

The following year, the “hero of Harlem” was welcomed on Park Avenue by Charles de Gaulle. He embraced the French president, overwhelmed by the honor, while his compatriot and friend Josephine Baker looked on. “Eugene Bullard is a true French hero,” said the General. This was an apt turn of phrase, as the Black pilot certainly did not enjoy the same treatment in the United States – except from Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote an article about him: “I think we in America should be proud of this man who now lives in our country after his long service to the France which he loved.” Through the words of the former First Lady, America expressed its gratitude to him for the first time.

Eugene Bullard finally put an end to his anonymity on NBC at Rockefeller Center, the same building where he worked as an elevator operator. On December 22, 1959, the “Black Swallow of Death” was interviewed by Dave Garroway on Today. America discovered the hero of two world wars in his simple worker’s uniform, “the only one not riddled with bullets.” Unshaken, he proudly wore some 15 French medals and showed off his business card, which featured a single phrase: “First known Negro military pilot.” After the show, his friends urged him to write his memoirs. But All Blood Runs Red was never finished; Eugene Bullard died in 1961 after battling stomach cancer. In accordance with his final wishes, his coffin was draped with a French flag.

On December 22, 1959, the “Black Swallow of Death” was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC. He appeared on the air in his elevator operator uniform. © U.S. Air Force

Eugene Bullard’s Heritage

In 1994, 33 years after his death and 77 years after he was rejected by the U.S. military, America finally recognized the pilot’s bravery. Thanks to Colin Powell, the first African American to occupy the post of Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the forgotten corporal was posthumously promoted to the rank of second lieutenant. His military medals and Cross of Lorraine, symbolizing his commitment to Free France, are now on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

His native Georgia also celebrates his legacy in style. Eugene Bullard Day is now commemorated in the state every October 9, the day of his birth. To mark the occasion in 2019, the Aviation Museum in Warner Robins, south of Macon, which welcomes 500,000 visitors a year, unveiled a statue in his honor. One of his descendants, Harriett Bullard-White, was present at the ceremony. In an emotional speech, she said: “I want little Black kids to see what this guy did under the worst kind of racism and Jim-Crowism, and to become what he became.” More than a century after his exile, Eugene Jacques Bullard has been immortalized, cast in bronze as a 21-year-old in a French airman’s uniform.

Interviewed by France-Amérique, the French consul in Atlanta is delighted by this commemoration, which marks the symbolic importance of “bonds of blood and struggle” in French-American friendship. Consul Anne-Laure Desjonquères goes one step further: “In my opinion, Eugene Bullard’s most important legacy lies not in the skies of World War I, but in his fight for the integration of African Americans.” This rings particularly true in this Southern state, which is still trying to come to terms with its slave-owning and segregationist past.

The “Black Swallow of Death” rests in Queens, a few feet from his friend Louis Armstrong. Since the summer of 2020 and the transatlantic protests sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, a petition has been circulating online to have Eugene Bullard inducted into the Pantheon in the French capital. “Like Josephine Baker, he is the most French of Americans,” wrote one signatory. “So why shouldn’t we welcome another American in Paris?”

Article published in the February 2024 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.