A Brief History
On August 23, 1994, an extraordinary American warrior was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. Eugene Bullard, born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895, had fought in World War I for the French Foreign Legion, and in 1917 he became the first ever African-American to be a military pilot, one of only two pilots of African origin in World War I.
While with the French ground troops, Bullard had served with distinction. He finally got his chance to fly after he had recovered from serious wounds which he had received at Verdun in 1916. For the Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Air Service, he flew first as an aerial gunner and then as a pursuit (fighter) pilot. He picked up the nickname “The Black Swallow of Death” and may have shot down 2 German planes.
Bullard became a highly decorated war hero, receiving a total of 15 military decorations from France. Incredibly, when the U.S. entered the war, Bullard attempted to join the American aviation units in France but was turned down as the U.S. only accepted Caucasian pilots.
The son of an African-American father and a Native American mother (Creek), after the war, Bullard worked as a drummer and club manager before opening his own nightclub in Paris. While in the club scene, he became friends with notable black performers such as Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. He was also good friends with the famous poet Langston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser.
The Nazi occupation of 1940 sent Bullard hustling back to the U.S. by way of Spain but not before he had become wounded in a battle in which he had fought once more for the French despite his age. Prior to the German invasion, Bullard, who also spoke German, had spied on the German patrons of his club for the French government.
Back in the U.S., Bullard had the misfortune of being beaten up in New York State in 1949 in a series of incidents and protests that became known as the Peekskill riots. Bullard had performed as a musician at a concert given by Paul Robeson, an African-American believed to have communist sympathies. At the concert, a mob with anti-communist, anti-Semitic and anti-black sentiments got out of control. The beating was caught on camera and can be viewed in the documentary The Tallest Tree in our Forest.
Bullard then spent his final years working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center and died in 1961 of stomach cancer. In 1954 he had been invited back to France to re-light the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and in 1959 France made him a knight of the Legion of Honor.
Hardly paid any attention to in the U.S. during his life, after his death he was the subject of a biography, The Black Swallow of Death (1972), and is depicted in the 2006 film Flyboys. Like many African-American and Native American men and women, his extraordinary life deserves more consideration in American history.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is your favorite African-American pilot? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
For another interesting event that happened on August 23, please see the History and Headlines article: “The Top 10 Bloodiest Battles of World War II.”
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For more information, please see…
Greenly, Larry. Eugene Bullard: World’s First Black Fighter Pilot. NewSouth Books, 2013.
Harris, Henry Scott. All Blood Runs Red: Life and Legends of Eugene Jacques Bullard – First Black American Military Aviator. eBookIt.com, 2013.