Plus ça change
Picture the hands
Of a little black boy
On the run from snarling hatred
Creating the Centena
When I stumbled across the remarkable story of Eugene Bullard, I knew straight away I had to write about him. He was the first ever black American fighter pilot – he fought and flew for France in WW1.
Born in Georgia, he ran away at a young age, having been traumatised by overt racism and the attempted lynching of his father. He was determined to get to France to experience the liberty, equality and brotherhood he’d heard his father, who’d been raised by a French family, talk so fondly about. So he made his way across the southern states, and then to Scotland on a German boat. In the UK, he boxed professionally and joined a touring group of black minstrels which eventually took him to Paris, where he stayed, working at a nightclub.
When the war broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion and fought as a gunner on the Somme front, Champagne, and Verdun, where he was wounded so badly he wasn’t allowed back on the front line. So he joined the French Air Force as an air gunner in the Lafayette Flying Corps. When the US entered the war, the Army Air Service recruited all the Americans flying in the regiment – all except Eugene.
After the war ended, he ran a jazz club in Paris, where he married and had two children. A natural linguist and relentless freedom fighter, he agreed to relay intelligence captured from German conversations in his club to the French authorities. When the Germans invaded and things got too dangerous, he escaped through Spain and made it to New York City, where he ended his life working in various jobs, most notably as an elevator operator in the Rockefeller Center.
He was highly decorated by France for his war efforts, and was one of three men invited in 1954 to light the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Solder under the Arc de Triomphe. He died in New York at the age of 66, and was buried with full French military honours in a cemetery in Queens.
In 1994, 77 years after being rejected by the Army Air Service because of his race, he was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the US Air Force.
On the side of his fighter plane were the words ‘All blood runs red’.