Image Courtesy of
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force
Pilot Eugene Bullard was the first African American to fly a fighter plane and was known as the “black swallow of death” for his courage during missions. He led a colorful life, much of it in Europe.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia on October 9, 1894. After witnessing lynch mobs and other racial violence, Bullard left his hometown at the age of eight destined for France and its less racially-divisive society. Along the way he joined a troupe of gypsies who traveled through the southern United States.
In 1912 as a teen, Bullard stowed away on a train to Virginia and then on board a ship bound for Europe. He worked odd jobs in Scotland and England, some in the underground world of gambling, before eventually arriving in Paris, France, his long-time destination. In 1914 at the age of 20, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion but was pulled out of action after being injured. On leave, he bragged that he could fly a fighter plane and on a bet wrangled a spot in a French flight training school.
Bullard learned to fly, joined the then small French air corps and quickly became known for flying into dangerous situations often with a pet monkey. When the United States formally entered World War I, many American expatriates applied for transfers to U.S. forces. Despite his three years of flight experience, Bullard’s application was denied, and the United States military further pressured France to permanently ground Bullard in order to uphold the U.S. policy against African American pilots. France succumbed, and Bullard was taken off of aviation duty.
After the war, Bullard discovered jazz, learning to play drums in Paris nightclubs and eventually owning two nightclubs of his own. He married Marcelle Straumann and had two daughters, but the marriage ended in divorce. After Germany invaded France in 1940, Bullard began working as a spy for the French Resistance and then escaped to the United States with his daughters. He established a new life in New York City, again working odd jobs that included selling perfume and operating the elevator of the RCA building, home to The Today Show.
In 1954, Bullard was interviewed for the show.
Eugene Jacques Bullard died in Harlem in 1961. In 1994, he was honored posthumously by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum.
Craig Lloyd, Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-age Paris
(Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000); P.J. Carisella, James
W. Ryan, and Edward W. Brooke, The Black Swallow of Death: The
Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World's First Black
Combat Aviator (Boston: Marlborough House, 1972); William A. Shack,
Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story Between the Great Wars
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); “Eugene Bullard,"
Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 12 (Detroit: Gale, 1999).