Eugene Bullard’s story is so incredible that it reads like fiction. The son of a former slave, he ran away from his Columbus home as a child, fleeing the Jim Crow South in the early 20th century after his beloved father was nearly lynched. He stowed away on a boat for Europe, boxed professionally, drummed in a jazz band in Paris, rubbed elbows with Louis Armstrong and fought for the French Foreign Legion in World War I.
He was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre for his heroism at the Battle of Verdun, Bullard next joined France’s air service, becoming the world’s first African American fighter pilot and earning the nickname “The Black Swallow of Death.” The segregated U.S. military wouldn’t accept him as a pilot because of his race during WWI. He spied for the French Resistance and narrowly escaped the Nazi invasion of Paris, eventually returning to the U.S.
Bullard served as the “father” of the black American aviators who came after him, including the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought in World War II and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the U.S. military. Some of those airmen have been invited to attend Wednesday’s ceremony.
To honor him on his birthday in the state he fled more than a century ago, Georgia’s WWI Centennial Commission unveiled a statue of Bullard on October 9, 2019 at the Museum of Aviation near Robins Air Force Base. His admirers say the six-foot, three-inch bronze monument will finally give him his due in Georgia after decades of gradual recognition.