Eugene Bullard was unhappy as child, as was evidenced by his numerous attempts to run away from home. After each unsuccessful try, he was returned to his father, who proceeded to beat young Eugene. In 1906, at the age of 11, Eugene got far enough away and hoped to experience a happier life. He wandered for years, fending for himself through odd jobs and scrounging.
In 1912, Eugene stowed away on a German freight ship. The ship docked in Scotland and Eugene made his way across the United Kingdom working with an African-American traveling entertainment group, as well as taking opponents as a boxer. He made it to France for a boxing match and decided to make it his home. He loved the customs and culture of France and felt comfortable, noting in a journal: “It seemed to me that French democracy influenced the minds of both black and white Americans there and helped us all act like brothers.”
When World War I broke out, Eugene enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, serving with the 170th Infantry Regiment. He eventually joined the Aéronautique Militaire, the French Air Force. He engaged in many successful air battles and his fierce fighting methods earned him the nickname “Black Swallow of Death.” He was repeatedly decorated by the French government for his efforts.
In 1917, when the United States entered the war, Eugene attempted to join the US Air Force. He was turned down, citing a number of made-up excuses. The real reason, of course, was that the US Air Force did not accept African-Americans. He returned to his unit, but a confrontation with a superior officer relegated him to menial duty until his discharge.
Back in civilian life, Eugene ran an athletic club, then worked in and eventually owned a nightclub — an establishment that was frequented by Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker. In the months before the start of World War II, Eugene was employed as a spy, looking for Nazis among the nightclub patrons. Fearing for his safety and the safety of his family, he headed for Spain, then Portugal with the United States his eventual destination. His military settlement from the French government was enough to buy an apartment in Harlem.
An activist for civil rights, Eugene was involved in the notorious Peekskill Riot. A protest at an appearance by singer and fellow activist Paul Robeson escalated to violence when a local VFW chapter accused Robeson of being a communist. Eugene and others were severely beaten by a mob which included law enforcement.
The treatment Eugene received in the United States was jarring as compared to the accolades he experienced in France. Each morning he would look at his 15 French war medals as he left his apartment for his job as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. On December 22, 1959, Eugene was interviewed by Today Show host Dave Garroway about his war exploits. He wore his elevator operator uniform during the interview.
Eugene developed stomach cancer and passed away in 1961 at the age of 66. He is remembered as the first African-American military pilot — but for a different country than his own.