On October 9, 1895, Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia as the 7th of 10 children born to his parents. William Bullard was the name of his father who was also called Octave, a black man born in Stewart County, Georgia. Josephine Thomas, who was called Joyakee was Eugene Bullard’s mother. Joyakee was of black and Muscogee Creek indigenous American origins. She died when Eugene was 6 years old. Eugene would attend the 28th Street School in Columbus, Georgia until the fifth grade. During these years, Eugene witnessed acts of racial terrorism against blacks. A mob of angry white men attempted to lynch Octave Bullard over a work dispute. The racism in Columbus, Georgia was becoming too much for Eugene to deal with and he wanted to escape it. His father would often tell him stories about France abolishing slavery and black men being treated as humans and not animals. These stories resonated with a young Eugene and sparked a flame that would lead him to France. At the age of 11, Eugene decided to run away from home in hopes of eventually making it to France. He traveled to Atlanta, Georgia where he became acquainted with the Stanley's, a group of British Gypses who allowed him to work as a care taker to their horses, and they also taught him how to ride and race horses. The Stanley’s told him stories about black people in Brittan being free of the racial discrimination blacks faced in America. The stories increased Eugene's desire to reach Europe.
Around 1911, Eugene was in Dawson, Georgia working as a stable-boy and aspiring jockey for the Turner family. Because of his hard work and dedication, the Turner family allowed Eugene to be their jockey at the 1911 County Fair in Dawson, Georgia. The following year, Eugene made his way to Norfolk, Virginia, where he snook onto a German Merchant Freight Ship. He was eventually discovered and kicked off the ship in Aberdeen, Scotland. During his stay in Aberdeen he found odd jobs to survive. He traveled to Glasgow, Scotland where he worked more odd jobs. He then arrived in London and eventually Liverpool where he became a prize-fighter and comedian within the Freedman Pickaninnies. Eugene’s boxing trainer was Aaron Lister Brown, or better known as the boxer the Dixie Kid. The Dixie Kid arranged for Eugene to fight in Paris, France, which was a dream come true for Eugene, because he would finally make it to France. After the fight, Eugene decided to live in France for a while and continue boxing. He also found work in a music hall. Germany declared war on France on August 3, 1914, World War 1 had began on July 28, of 1914. In October of 1914, Eugene Bullard enlisted in the French Army’s Foreign Legion. Eugene was involved in active combat against the Germans, first as a machine gunner, then involved in the Second Battle of Champagne. He served with the 3rd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment, the 2nd Marching Regiment of the 1st Foreign Regiment, 170th French Infantry Regiment, and the 2nd Marching Regiment of the 2nd Foreign Regiment in the 1st Moroccan Division.
The French Army’s 1st Moroccan Division was one of the army’s most highly decorated divisions. The Foreign Legion suffered casualties that caused them to be reassigned as a reinforcement unit. In addition to Eugene participating in the 2nd Battle of Champaign, he participated in the battles of Somme and Verdun. He was severely injured in the battle of Verdun. While recovering from his injuries, Eugene decided to join the 170th French Infantry Regiment, who were nicknamed the “Swallows of Death”. Injuries didn’t keep Eugene from being awarded the Croix de guerre medal for his valor and service. While recovering from their injuries, a white soldier named Jeff Dickson bet Eugene $2,000 that he would not become a military pilot. His injuries prevented him from serving in the infantry so his next choice was volunteering for the French Air Service in 1916. He started as a gunner before receiving flight training at Châteauroux and Avord, then receiving his pilots license in 1917. In November of 1916, Eugene joined the Lafayette Flying Corps. They would accompany French pilots on missions to bomb their enemies and perform reconnaissance. Eugene received a promotion to Corporal in June of 1917 and was involved in 20 combat missions as a member of Squadron N.85. He is credited with shooting down German planes, but the number of planes shot down are disputed. After World War 1, Eugene worked as a Jazz drummer in French nightclubs. He eventually opened a night club and athletic club. Legendary performers such a Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker would perform in Eugene’s club.
Eugene would marry a woman named Marcelle Straumann in 1923, they were married for 12 years before Marcelle left Eugene and their two daughters. As World War II began, the French need Eugene's help and skills to spy on the Germans who would frequent his nightclubs. He served in Frances 51st Infantry Regiment during the German Invasion of 1940. Eugene was wounded during the invasion but managed to escape to Spain and eventually made his way to the United States. He would be admitted to a hospital in New York to seek treatment for his injuries. Now further injured from World War II, Eugene was living in New York seeking to make a living as he did in France but found that the U.S. was still racist. He found odd jobs to support himself and often worked as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong in Europe. The nightclubs he owned in France were destroyed during the war but the French government gave him a settlement check, he used the money to purchase an apartment in New York. Bullard was severely beaten by police officers during a Paul Robeson concert. The incident was captured on film but noting was done to the police officers. Later in life, Bullard worked as an elevator operator in New York before he died in 1961 of stomach cancer. During his life Eugene Bullard was awarded 14 medals by the French Army and Government. He was Knighted by the French General Charles de Gaulle in 1959. He was inducted into the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989, posthumously appointed to second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, and a statue of him was placed into the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins, Georgia in 2019. He became the first African-American to become a military pilot, but he had to join the French Army to do so because of American racism. To Mr. Eugene Bullard, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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