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.
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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., settling in New York and living his remaining years largely in obscurity.
To honor him on his birthday in the state he fled more than a century ago, Georgia's WWI Centennial Commission will unveil a statue of Bullard on Wednesday at the Museum of Aviation near Robins Air Force Base. His admirers say the 6-foot, 3-inch bronze monument will finally give him his due in Georgia after decades of gradual recognition.
“He was a true hero,” said commission member Rick Elder of Sylvania, who fought in the Vietnam War as a fighter pilot. “For him to be standing out there — now we are finally getting to the point that we have honored him in a proper way.”
Bullard, Elder added, 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.
The commission declined to release a photo of the statue in advance of its unveiling. But its Cumming-based sculptor, Gregory Johnson, said he designed it based on several black and white photos of Bullard. The statue, Johnson said, shows Bullard wearing his military uniform, pinkie ring, medals and fourragère, a braided military decoration. His arms are folded across his chest, he is looking skyward and he is standing atop a base of Georgia granite inscribed with his name. Johnson was struck by Bullard’s resilience.
“It is not how hard you fall, it is how high you bounce. And this guy bounced really high,” Johnson said.
Created by the state Legislature, the WWI Centennial Commission raised private donations for the statue. Elder declined to identify the cost, but he said the donors include the Atlanta Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Department of Georgia Veterans of Foreign Wars, Gulfstream Aerospace and Epps Aviation.
Bullard supported himself with a series of menial jobs after he returned to the States, working as a longshoreman and security guard. In 1959, when he was working as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center, he was interviewed by Dave Garroway on NBC’s “Today Show.” That same year, he was named a knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
“You might say I touched all the bases. Not much more you can do in 65 years,” Bullard said a day before the award ceremony, according to one New York newspaper account.
He died in 1961 within two months of receiving a diagnosis of intestinal cancer. More than a quarter of a century later, Bullard was inducted into Georgia’s Aviation Hall of Fame at the same museum where his statue will be unveiled. In 1994, then-Gov. Zell Miller proclaimed the 100th anniversary of his birth “Eugene Bullard Day.” That same year, he was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Though Bullard escaped the Jim Crow South, he wrote in his autobiography, "All Blood Runs Red," that his older brother Hector did not. Hector Bullard, Eugene Bullard wrote, was lynched following a dispute with a white family overseeing a Bullard family-owned peach farm in Fort Valley.
Eugene Bullard also suffered from discrimination and violence when he moved to New York after the wars. He was once beaten for refusing to sit at the back of a bus. Police clubbed him and knocked him down at a concert in 1949 by Paul Robeson, an actor and singer who demonstrated against racism.
"Even though he encountered racism there a lot, he never let that get him down. He never made a big thing of it, either. He just kept going," said Craig Lloyd, a former Columbus State University archivist who wrote the biography "Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris."
Harriett Bullard White of Marietta, whose great-grandfather was the brother of Eugene Bullard’s father, said she is among 20 descendants planning to attend Wednesday’s ceremony. Some are traveling from Florida and New Jersey.
“I am just so glad to live to see his state — the state that he ran from — recognize his greatness,” she said, “and call its native son home.”