On October 9, 1895, Eugene Bullard was born to a former Haitian slave, William, and a Muskogee Creek woman, Josephine, in Columbus, Georgia. While Eugene’s father escaped Haitian shackles and sought refuge in the US with the Creek tribes, they weren’t out of the woods just yet. Slavery had been abolished in the South only 30 years prior and still cast a long, dark shadow over the country. Eugene was no stranger to discrimination, hardship, and outright violence, all rooted in racism. His days were spent being ridiculed at school and then heckled on the streets with jokes about hanging, whipping, and other racial threats. Sometime during his pre-teenage years, he even witnessed his father narrowly escape a lynching. Things turned even worse when death came for Josephine earlier than usual, leaving Eugene without a mother at a very young age.
Simply put, his childhood was miserable, and because of this, he made several attempts to run away. One of his efforts to run away resulted in him being returned home and a swift beating by his father. A few years later, though, things would change.
In 1906, at only 11 years old, he ran away for good. The next six years would be spent drifting and wandering in search of himself and happiness across the Southern US. By chance, he found a group of Romani known as the Stanley Clan in Atlanta and joined them. In 1912, after many years of tending to horses and living the nomadic lifestyle, he was due for some more massive change. The Stanley Clan had told him stories of black men in Europe. Men who, regardless of their skin, could succeed and live lives of opportunity and happiness. Sure, Europe may not be all sunshine and butterflies, but to a black man in the early 20th century South, what did he have to lose? Eugene was a dreamer and dreamers don’t waste time. At 17, he lept at the first chance of a new life in Europe and hopped on a German merchant ship, Marta Russ, bound for Scotland.
A bright-eyed Eugene docked in Aberdeen and started a new chapter. There he got straight to business and started performing as a boxer with a vaudeville troupe. Crowds went wild, and in no time at all, he was supporting himself as a prizefighter in Great Britain. Times were good. The sun was the brightest it’d ever been, and life was worth living. One thing led to another, and he was scheduled for a fight in Paris.
After his fight in November of 1913, Eugene decided to stick around the City of Lights for a while. Thanks to his Haitian roots, he was fluent in French and fit right in with Paris’ liberal lifestyle. He’d come at just the right time, too – Belle Epoque. Paris was the pearl of the world during the belle epoque, and its beauty thrived for any and everyone. The Eiffel Tower, Opera, and the dreamy Seine bridges brought the city to life just a few decades earlier. The city was, at the time, the most elegant, optimistic, and evolving place in the world. Eugene had it all to himself. Then, the war happened.
When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, June 28, 1914, it set off a chain of events that would change the world forever. The Great War had officially begun, and it didn’t take long for France to join. When they did, Eugene knew he had some work to do. Later that summer, he enlisted in the infamous French Foreign Legion. He served in the 170th Infantry Regiment and went on to fight in many of the Great War’s deadliest battles. At the height of trench warfare, he survived Somme, Artois, Verdun, and many more. All of which resulted in 80% casualties. But Eugene, a now 19-year-old black runaway from Georgia, lived.
At the battle of Verdun, Eugene’s service came to a halt when his leg was seriously wounded during combat. Recovering in Lyon, his days as an infantryman were numbered. After his recovery, he headed back to Paris for the rest of his leave. While there, he bet a friend $2,000 that, despite his skin, he would join the French Air Service and be the first black pilot. He won that bet when the Aeronautique Militaire accepted him in the fall of 1916. By May 1917, he’d received his wings and became the first black fighter pilot in the world.
Shortly after receiving his wings, the US joined the war. Eugene quickly enlisted in the United States Air Force, eager to serve his home country. Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. The Air Force had accepted all but one application – Eugene’s. Despite his application being one of the best due to his multilingual skills, infantry service in the trenches, and French military honors, to the US Air Force, being black far outweighed talent. Even for one of France’s most decorated American volunteer soldiers. C’est la vie, he said. It was their loss, this man was no stranger to discrimination, and for the next few years, he fought where he was wanted, in France. Eugene painted the skies red and continued to rack up major feats with the help of his rhesus monkey, Jimmy. Yes, his “co-pilot” was a monkey named Jimmy. His unbeatable spirit and incredible feats as a combat pilot earned him the nickname “The Black Swallow of Death” He served valiantly until his discharge in October 1919.
In post-war Paris, Eugene’s colorful life was only getting started. After returning from the war, he opened up his own night club, Le Grand Duc. Now a celebrated war hero with a nightclub at the dawn of the roaring ’20s, he would get to know the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gloria Swanson, and even the Prince of Wales who all sipped more than a few drinks at his Le Grand Duc. Then, all at once, the jazz-age was born. In no time at all, Eugene was rubbing elbows with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, and more. A true lover of jazz, he pitched in on the drums and on stage quite often. As the years rolled on, he opened another bar, L’Escadrille, along with an athletic center, married a sweet French girl, had a few daughters, got divorced, and lived a somewhat normal life. You’d think this is where the story ends, but fate had a few more tricks up its sleeve.
World War II was waiting just around the corner. With the threat of Nazi occupation on the horizon, Eugene was recruited to become part of the French counterintelligence network. Thanks to his time in the first World War, Eugene had picked up a semi-fluency in German. This, combined with his French and English skills, made him a great candidate for spying on Nazi sympathizers and French fifth columnists who frequented Le Grand Duc or L’Escadrille. Eugene had now checked ‘spy’ off his list.
It was 1939, 27 years after he stowed away on Marta Russ, and the second world war had started. The black swallow wasted no time, enlisting his service again. Back at the forefront of battle, he served as a machine gunner in 51st Infantry. After some time, he was severely wounded by an artillery shell. Evading capture by the Nazis, he was smuggled across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain.
Once in Spain, Eugene realized that it was again time for a change. He sold his clubs and used the funds to go back to The States. He settled in Harlem where, as far as anyone could tell, he was no one. He worked odd jobs as a security guard, perfume salesman, and, eventually, an elevator operator. He lived a quiet life in a loud city where nobody knew his name, and no poets or musicians shook his hand. Here, he wasn’t a vaudeville, boxer, French Foreign Legion hero, jazz aficionado, or club owner. He was just a man who lived down the street. He went to work, paid his taxes, and put his pants on one leg at a time just like everyone else.
Over the years, Eugene became an avid supporter of civil rights. In 1949, he found himself in the middle of a racist brawl during the Peekskill Riots, where he, along with several other Jews and African-Americans, were beaten by police. He was once again disillusioned with America. But despite his father’s brush with lynching, his racist upbringing, a rejection from a country which he was willing to die for, and a beating by police – this was home. He is later quoted as saying, “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—but in a different way.”
Over the following years, the French showered Bullard with honors, and in 1954, he was one of only three men chosen to relight the everlasting flame at Paris’ Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In the fall of 1959, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor, the highest French decoration and Eugene’s fifteenth honor awarded by the French government. The following year, French President Charles DeGaulle visited him personally while traveling the United States.
Working as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, Eugene occasionally wore his medals on his uniform. The “Today Show” got wind of this, and Dave Garroway interviewed him on live television in the same building in which he worked as an elevator man.
Only a couple of years later, on October 12, 1961, he took his last breath after losing a battle with stomach cancer. He was 66 years old. It would be 33 more years before the United States recognized his bravery. In 1994, they made him an honorary Lieutenant in the US Air Force and acknowledged their grave mistake in denying his urge to serve his country.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was a boxer, a fighter pilot, a club owner, a spy, a perfume salesman, civil-rights advocate, and an elevator operator, but most of all, he was a dreamer. A hero. A luminary. A pioneer. The Black Swallow of Death. And by all accounts, the most interesting man in the world.
You can visit his grave at Flushing Cemetery in NYC.
View his display case in the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.
Visit his statue at Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgi. (Unveiled October 2019)