AFS has its roots in World War I, and for Black History Month we would like to feature an incredible figure from the War, Eugene Bullard. Black History Month is an annual celebration of Black and African-Americans’ contributions and an opportunity to expand the understanding of Black histories.
Correction: A previous publication of this article mistakenly listed Eugene Bullard as a volunteer for the American Field Service. That error has been corrected as of February 9, 2021.
Eugene Bullard (1895–1961) was born in the small city of Columbus, Georgia, in 1895, the seventh child in a close-knit working-class African American family. Bullard’s father William had been born a slave; he could trace his family roots back to the French-speaking slave colony of Martinique. Bullard’s mother died when he was small but his father kept his family of young children together, supporting them through manual labor. Bullard received a few years of schooling in a segregated primary school where he learned to read.
The near-lynching of his father, a strong and well-liked man in the community, was a traumatic event in Bullard’s childhood. Throughout his life, Bullard deeply resented the racial taunts and violence of white society, especially as he experienced them in the Jim Crow southern United States of the early 20th century. Restlessness and a desire for greater freedom led him to run away from home. For several years he lived as a child vagabond, staying for a time with various families, black and white, and supporting himself with different kinds of work.
In 1912, still a teenager, Bullard embarked on a larger adventure, stowing away on a ship bound for Europe. The ship deposited him in Aberdeen, Scotland. The resourceful and outgoing teenager soon found a circle of friends and employment on the edges of urban life, first in an amusement park and later in the city’s vaudeville theaters. Through friends, he learned to box and developed a career in the sport.
A series of boxing matches brought him to Paris in 1913, and at last Bullard found a place that he could consider home. The French did not enforce racial segregation, and Bullard experienced in Paris a sense of freedom and belonging. After his adopted country entered the war, Bullard made the decision to volunteer for military service. On his birthday in October 1914, he enlisted with the French Foreign Legion, a military wing of the French Army composed of non-French volunteers. His unit, the 170th Infantry, fought at the front where casualties were very high. Bullard described in this way the strong sense of camaraderie that developed in the unit’s ranks: “We were just a big family of fifty-four different nationalities, and we kept growing more diverse as the men were shot down. We all loved each other and lived and died for each other as men should.” Bullard was wounded in the Battle of Verdun. The French government awarded him the Croix de Guerre, a medal for courage in battle.
After recovering from his wounds in a French military hospital, Bullard decided to embrace a new challenge: he would train as a combat pilot, becoming the first African American to do so. In November 1916 he commenced the rigorous training program for fighter pilots. Upon completion he was accepted as a volunteer pilot with the Franco- American Flying Corps—a group of American pilots flying for the French Air Service. Airborne warfare was new in World War I and extremely dangerous. Bullard flew 20 combat missions and survived a forced landing under attack. Bullard was conscious of the racial barriers he was challenging. He later wrote that, on his first combat mission, he felt“the eyes of the world were watching me. … I had to do or die and I didn’t want to die.”
When the United States entered the war as a combatant nation, responsibility for the air combat unit was handed to the U.S. military. Seeking to transfer, Bullard was rejected by his own government, which refused to allow African Americans any role in the United States Air Service.
After the war, Bullard settled in Paris and worked as the manager of a jazz club; eventually he opened his own club, named “L’Escadrille” for an American volunteer air unit serving alongside the French during the war. When Germany invaded France during WWII, he and his family were forced to leave the country. He lived his later years in Harlem, New York City.