Eugene Bullard (9 October 1894 – 12 October 1961) was the world's first Black military pilot.
He was born Eugene Jacques Bullard in Columbus, Georgia, in the United States of America. His father was born an American slave known as "Big Chief Ox" and his mother was a Creek Indian; together, they had ten children. Bullard stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland to escape racial discrimination (he later claimed to have had witnessed his father's narrow escape from lynching as a child).
Read more about Eugene Bullard in the book, Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science, by Betty Kaplan, free from googlebooks.com.
While in the United Kingdom he worked as a boxer and also worked in a music hall. On a trip to Paris he decided to stay and joined the French Foreign Legion upon the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Wounded in the 1916 battles around Verdun and awarded the Croix de Guerre, Bullard transferred to the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Aéronautique Militaire and was eventually assigned to SPA 93 on 27 August 1917, where he flew some 20 missions and shot down two enemy aircraft (one of them unconfirmed).
With the entry of the United States into the war the US Army Air Service convened a medical board in August 1917 for the purpose of recruiting Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps. Although he passed the medical examination, Bullard was not accepted into American service because Blacks were barred from flying in U.S. service at that time. Bullard was discharged from the French Air Force after fighting with another officer while off-duty and was transferred to the 170th (French) Infantry Regiment on January 11, 1918, where he served until the Armistice.
Following the end of the war, Bullard remained in Paris. He began working in nightclubs and eventually owned his own establishment. He married the daughter of a French countess, but the marriage soon ended in divorce, with Bullard taking custody of their two daughters. His work in nightclubs brought him many famous friends, among them Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and Langston Hughes. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Bullard, who spoke German, readily agreed to a request from the French to spy on German agents frequenting his club in Paris.
After the German invasion of the French Third Republic in 1940, Bullard took his daughters and fled south from Paris. In Orléans he joined a group of soldiers defending the city and suffered a spinal wound in the fighting. He was helped to flee to Spain by a French spy, and in July 1940 he returned to the United States.
Bullard spent some time in a hospital in New York for his spinal injury, but he never fully recovered. During and after World War II, when seeking work in the United States, he found that the fame he enjoyed in France had not followed him to New York. He worked in a variety of occupations, as a perfume salesman, a security guard, and as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong, but his back injury severely restricted his activities. For a time he attempted to regain his nightclub in Paris, but his property had been destroyed during the Nazi occupation, and he received a financial settlement from the French government which allowed him to purchase an apartment in New York’s Harlem district.
In the 1950s, Bullard was a relative stranger in his own homeland. His daughters had married, and he lived alone in his apartment, which was decorated with pictures of the famous people he had known, and with a framed case containing his 15 French war medals. His final job was as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center, where his fame as the “Black Swallow of Death” was unknown.
In 1954, the French government invited Bullard to Paris to rekindle (together with two Frenchmen) the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, and in 1959 he was made a chevalier (knight) of the Légion d'honneur. Even so, he spent the last years of his life in relative obscurity and poverty in New York City where he died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961. He was buried with military honors by French officers in the French War Veterans' section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens.
In 1972, his exploits as a pilot were published in the book The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World's First Black Combat Aviator by P.J. Carisella, James W. Ryan and Edward W. Brooke (Marlborough House, 1972). This book, with jacket art by famed WWI aviation illustrator George Evans, is part of the Bullard display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio.
On 23 August 1994, 33 years after his death, and 77 years to the day after his rejection for U.S. military service in 1917, Eugene Bullard was posthumously commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
In 2006, the movie Flyboys loosely portrayed Bullard and his comrades from the Lafayette Flying Corps. Abdul Salis portrays Eugene Skinner, the character based on Bullard.