MoSho’s Badass of the Week- Black Swallow of Death Eugene Bullard
This week's Badass is a “Jack of all trades…” or should I say, a JACQUES of all trades. We’re celebrating the last day of Black History Month with the first African American military pilot, known as the “Black Swallow of Death.”
We're taking a look at Ben Thompson's book "Badass" and finding some of our favorite badasses in history. A few months ago, we discovered an amazing website Badass of the Week. The creator, Ben Thompson, founded the site so others could learn about various badass men and women in history. The site has been around since 2004 and Thompson has written several books on the subject of Badasses through history, as well as the Guts and Glory series of books. Both series look at various types of heroes and villains throughout history. While reading these books, we've found interesting facts, stories and people that we believe should be highlighted so you know more about them.
Since February was Black History Month, I feel like we really missed out on the opportunity to highlight some great African-American badasses in history. Todays badass is someone who started with nothing and ran away from home to set out to try and change his fortunes. He did and became a hero, but his life ended close to its humble beginnings.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Georgia, the 7th of 10 children. When he was only 11, he ran away from home after a horrific incident of racism involving his father. A lynch mob came to their home and attacked his father after an argument at work with a racist supervisor. His father survived and went into hiding while Eugene ran away to find a place where “white people treated colored people like human beings,” according to PBS. He became a drifter for 5 years and met a variety of characters during his journeys. One that had a special impact on him was a group of English gypsies, who showed him that black people could be treated as equals all the way in Europe. From there, Eugene set out to make his way across the pond for a better life. At 16, he was able to stowaway on a ship and ended up in Scotland but his dream was to end up in France. His father has French roots and he believed it was his “destiny” to end up there. On his journey to France, he worked many jobs including performing slapstick in the Freedman Pickaninnies, dock worker, street performer, and even a target for an amusement park game. It was his job as a boxer though that took him to France finally.
When Eugene Jacques Bullard was 19 years old, he decided to join the French Foreign Legion to fight for his adopted country against Germany. At the Battle of Verdun, Eugene was seriously injured and his wounds took him out of ground combat and earned him the Croix de Guerre military decoration.
While recovering from his injuries, he became friends with a French air service officer who he asked to help him become an aircraft gunner. The man did and while he was training he learned about the glamorous and well off Lafayette Escadrille, the squad of American fighter pilots. Bullard immediately knew that’s what he wanted to be and seven months later, he obtained a military pilot’s license. His achievements were celebrated in his home of Paris, where it was widely publicized that a African American man from Georgia was the first military fight jet pilot.
Sadly, in America almost no one knew of his achievement and that censorship and rejection from his homeland would soon be felt all the way in France. The United States joined the war in April in 1917 and Bullard applied to fight for the US with the American Expeditionary Forces. He was rejected but he continued to fight for France. It was during that time that military authorities took him out of the air and he was moved to a noncombat position. Bullard said this was because of an issue with a racist officer and he was ousted for something small, but biographers have said that he actually punched a French lieutenant. Another biographer later said that there was circumstantial evidence against the American liaison for Bullard’s squad, Edmund C. Gros that confirmed Bullard’s suspicion that his ousting was racially influenced.
Eugene Jacques Bullard gained citizenship in France due to his military service and wounds received fighting. Bullard lived in Paris and became a drummer working in a nightclub. After that, he opened his own successful nightclub which had Bullard rubbing shoulder with some of the biggest names at the time including Louis Armstrong and Langston Hughes. Josephine Baker would babysit his young daughters and Ernest Hemingway even based a character on Bullard in one of his books. When World War II began, Bullard authorized the French government to send spies into his nightclub to gather information on the Germans who still frequented the hot spot. He served again in the military for France but was wounded in battle and able to escape to neutral Spain and eventually America.
Sadly, his notoriety and fame didn’t follow him across the sea and no one in his homeland knew who he was. He worked various jobs to make ends meet, from a security guard, a perfume salesman, and even as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong. When the war ended, he found out his nightclub in France had been destroyed and he was compensated by the French government. He used the money to buy a small apartment in New York. He lived a humble life and his final job was as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. It was at that time he was interviewed by NBC’s Today Show and many Americans finally knew the incredible story of the war hero. Bullard died just a couple years later in 1961, earning 15 honors from France including being inducted as a Knight of the Legion of Honor and the French Military Medal, the third highest military honor after the Legion of Honor. Then in 1994, 33 years after his death, the US government posthumously commissioned him a second lieutenant for the Air Force. You can learn more about Eugene Jacques Bullard at the All That's Interesting website or in the PBS video below.