Eugene Bullard, African American / Native American hero
“The United States is my mother, and I love my mother, but as far as France is concerned, she is my mistress, and you love your mistress more than you love your mother.”
Whatever astounding word you can think of is way too small a word to contain the true story of Eugene Bullard. This guy is WAY MORE than what you can see on the outside. He lived a life so large, so brave, so creative, that you couldn’t possibly make it up.
Eugene Bullard was so good at so many things that he fit right in, easily, with some of the most famous, historic people of the 20th century.
The precise story of Eugene Bullard is still a mystery, because some of the precise facts are in dispute.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was the first African American military pilot. He flew for France in the Escadrille Lafayette, and was one of the few African American combat pilots of the First World War.
Other black pilots of the 1914-1918 War were William Robinson Clarke, a Jamaican man who flew in the British Royal Flying Corps, Domenico Mondelli, who flew in the Italian Servizio Aeronautico, and Ahmet Ali Çelikten, who flew in the air force of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
Eugene Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia on October 9, 1895, the seventh of 10 children born to William (Octave) Bullard, a black man from Martinique, and Josephine (“Yokalee”) Thomas, a Native American woman of the Creek nation.
His father’s ancestors, who had been slaves in Haiti, came to the United States, and took refuge among the Native American people of the Creek nation.
Eugene Bullard was a student at the Twenty-eighth Street School in Columbus, Georgia from 1901 to 1906. He completed the fifth grade, and learned how to read.
As a young boy, he witnessed his father’s narrow escape from a redneck lynch mob in south Georgia. He ran away from home at age 11, lived on the streets, and moved around the country doing odd jobs. In Atlanta, he joined a group of gypsies and traveled with them, tending their horses, and learning how to race them.
In Newport News, Virginia, Eugene Bullard stowed away on the German freighter “Maltheus” bound for Hamburg. He was let off in Aberdeen, Scotland. He said he was looking for a country far away, called France, that his father had often told him, was a place where people were accepted, no matter their skin color.
He ended up in England, and became a professional boxer in London. He was a slapstick comedian in the Freedman Pickaninnies, an African American vaudeville troupe. Eventually, he made it to France, and worked in a music hall. In November 1913, he fought a professional boxing match in Paris.
The First World War began in August 1914. Two months later, on October 19, 1914, Eugene Bullard enlisted in the French Army. He was almost 19 years old. He became a soldier in one of the most famous fighting formations of the First World War, the Régiment de March de la Légion Étrangère (RMLE, Marching Regiment of the Foreign Legion). The RMLE was part of the French Moroccan Division, the roughest, toughest, most highly decorated fighting formation of the French Army in the First World War.
Eugene Bullard fought as a soldier of the Légion on the Somme, in Champagne, and at Verdun, three of the most bitterly fought, hardest, worst, bloodiest sectors of the Western Front.
Americans and other volunteers could transfer to French Metropolitan Army units, so Eugene Bullard joined the 170th Infantry Regiment. “Hirondelles de la Mort” (Swallows of Death) was the motto of the 170th. Eugene Bullard was severely wounded at Verdun on March 5, 1916, serving as a soldier of the 170th. He was 21.
Recovering from his wounds, Eugene Bullard volunteered in the Aéronautique Militaire (Military Air Service) on October 2, 1916. He completed training at the Aerial Gunnery School in Cazaux, Gironde, and basic flight training at Châteauroux and Avord. On May 5, 1917, Eugene Bullard earned his wings, and was awarded pilot license number 6950 by the Aéro-Club de France.
By November 15, 1916, he was one of the 269 American aviators in the Escadrille Américaine N.124, the ultra famous Escadrille Lafayette.
On August 27, he was assigned to Escadrille SPA 93, based at Beauzée-sur-Aire south of Verdun, where he remained until September 13, 1917. This fighter squadron flew Nieuport and SPAD fighters that displayed a flying stork as the squadron insignia.
Eugene Bullard’s service record also includes Escadrille SPA 85 from September 13, 1917 to November 11, 1917. He flew a SPAD fighter that displayed a red heart pierced by a knife, with the words “Tout Sang Qui Est Rouge” – “All Blood Runs Red” as his own personal insignia. He flew more than twenty combat missions, and is credited with shooting down German aircraft, although French records do not confirm his victories.
The United States entered the First World War on April 6, 1917. The U.S. Army Air Service convened a medical board to recruit Americans serving in the Lafayette Escadrille for the Air Service in the American Expeditionary Forces. Eugene Bullard successfully completed the medical examination, but was not chosen. Only white pilots were accepted.
Some time later, while in Paris on a military pass, Eugene Bullard got into an argument with a French officer, and in January 1918 was punished by being transferred to the service battalion of the 170th Infantry Regiment. He served in the 170th nearly a year beyond the Armistice, not being discharged until October 24, 1919.
For his service in the First World War, the government of “Madame la République” awarded Eugene Bullard the Médaille militaire, Croix de guerre, Croix du combattant volontaire 1914–1918, Médaille de Verdun, and 10 other medals. Eugene Bullard returned to Paris after his discharge from the French Army.
He worked for four years as a jazz drummer in “Zelli’s Zig-Zag Band” at a nightclub named “Zelli’s”, owned by Joe Zelli. Bullard worked with Robert Henri, a lawyer and friend, to secure a club license, which allowed Zelli’s to stay open after midnight. This led to Zelli’s becoming the most celebrated nightclub in Montmartre, as most other area cabarets still closed at midnight.
Following his time at Zelli’s, Bullard departed for Alexandria, Egypt where he performed with a jazz ensemble at the Hotel Claridge, and fought two prize fights. He also hired musicians for private parties of the social elites of Paris, worked as a masseur, and as an exercise trainer.
Eugene Bullard later managed a nightclub “Le Grand Duc” where he hired the American poet, Langston Hughes. Around 1928, Bullard was able to buy “Le Grand Duc” from Ada Louise Smith. Now, “Le Grand Duc” was his place. He was a dashing bon vivant wearing a tuxedo who ran a fancy upscale Parisian nightclub. His people were international entertainers who dazzled his regular customers. They were the cool crowd who arrived in chauffeured limousines wearing smooth silk suits and gorgeous glittering gowns of spectacular sartorial splendor.
As owner of “Le Grand Duc” he became friends with Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gloria Swanson, French flying ace Charles Nungesser, and the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII of England. Eventually, he became the owner of “L’Escadrille” an American style Parisian nightclub.
Eugene Bullard married a French Countess, Marcelle Straumann, daughter of Louis Albert de Straumann and Countess Helene Heloise Charlotte de Straumann, a wealthy Parisian family. They were married on July 17, 1923, in a civil ceremony in the Hotel de Ville of the 10th Arrondissement. Their marriage ended sometime between 1935 and 1940.
Eugene Bullard told people that his wife died, but it seems she may have simply walked away. As a single parent, Eugene Bullard raised their two daughters, Jacqueline Bullard, about 11 (born June 23, 1924), and Lolita Josephine Bullard, about 7. It is believed that Marcelle Eugenie Henrietta Straumann died sometime between 1985 and 1995, at about 90 years of age.
Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises” contains a character based on Eugene Bullard as a night club owner in the Montmartre district of Paris.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, Eugene Bullard, who spoke German, agreed to join a French counterintelligence network to spy on Nazi infiltrators and sympathizers, and French citizens of German descent, who frequented his nightclub.
When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Eugene Bullard volunteered in the French Army. He was a soldier of the 51st Infantry Regiment, defending Orléans, when he was wounded in the back on June 15, 1940. During the chaos of the Fall of France, he escaped to neutral Spain, then to Portugal, and returned to the United States on a Red Cross ship in July 1940.
Eugene Bullard spent some time in a New York hospital, but never fully recovered from his war wounds. The fame he enjoyed in France did not follow him to the United States. He worked as a perfume salesman, a security guard, and an interpreter for Louis Armstrong. His back injury severely restricted his employment opportunities.
In 1945, he attempted to regain his nightclub in Paris, but it had been destroyed during the war. He received a financial settlement from the French government, and was able to buy an apartment in Harlem in New York City.
In 1949, a concert to benefit the Civil Rights Congress was held by African American entertainer and activist Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York. Rioting broke out.
The concert was rescheduled for August 27 at Lakeland Acres, north of Peekskill, but a mob attacked the concert goers with baseball bats and stones.
The concert was again rescheduled, and took place without incident, but a hostile local crowd threw rocks through the windshields of cars driven by concert goers as they drove away.
Eugene Bullard was among those attacked after the concert. He was knocked to the ground and beaten by an angry mob, which included members of the state and local police. None of the assailants was ever prosecuted.
The attack was captured on film in the 1977 documentary “The Tallest Tree in Our Forest” and the Oscar winning documentary “Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist” narrated by Sidney Poitier. Graphic pictures of Eugene 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.”
In the 1950s, Eugene Bullard was a stranger in his own country. His daughters had married, and he lived alone in his apartment, which was decorated with pictures of his famous friends and a framed case containing his 15 French war medals. His final job was as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
On December 22, 1959, he was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC’s Today Show, and received hundreds of letters from viewers. Bullard wore his elevator operator uniform during the interview.
In 1961, French President Charles DeGaulle visited the United States, and traveled to New York City to meet Eugene Bullard, personally. Charles DeGaulle, President of the Republic of France, embraced Eugene Bullard, elevator operator, and publicly praised him as a “véritable héros français” (“true French hero”).
Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer in Harlem on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66. His body was buried with full French military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens.
Eugene Bullard received 15 decorations from the government of France for his service in two world wars.
In 1954, the French government invited Eugene Bullard to Paris to be one of three men chosen to rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.
In 1972, Eugene Bullard’s exploits as a pilot were retold in a biography, “The Black Swallow of Death.” He is also the subject of the nonfiction young adult memoir “Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot” by Larry Greenly.
In 1989 Eugene Bullard was posthumously inducted into the inaugural class of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame.
On August 23, 1994 — 33 years after his death, and 77 years to the day after the medical exam that should have allowed him to fly for his own country — Eugene Bullard was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Also in 1994, he was honored posthumously by the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
The 2006 movie “Flyboys” loosely portrays Bullard and his Escadrille Lafayette comrades in the First World War.
On October 9, 2019, the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia erected a statue in honor of Eugene Bullard.
In the 2012 movie “Red Tails” the fictional Col. A.J. Bullard (played by Terrence Howard) is a thinly disguised representation of the actual African American commanding officer of the 332nd Fighter Group, known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
During World War II, the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Air Force flew North American P-51 Mustangs with bright red tails.
In 2012–2014, the French writer, Claude Ribbe, wrote a book about Eugene Bullard, and made a television documentary about him.