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Black History Month 2016 – Eugene Bullard

There have been many interviews with black Americans on radio and TV during the first week of Black History Month. One that I was watched, Celebrate Perseverance, was shown on our local cable sports network. They interviewed former Minnesota Vikings football players about what it was like growing up as a black person in America. One remembered how their drinking fountains were labelled “colored”. He explained how he snuck over to the ones that were designated for whites and tried the water, thinking it might have tasted different. He found out that it didn’t at all. Another one talked about how his team had won their division championship and how they should have gone on to play in the tournament against the other championship teams in the area. They weren’t allowed to play in the tournament because they were black.

This whole idea of not letting people do things because they are different really doesn’t sit well with me. Why does this happen? It has happened throughout history with different types of people for different reasons, but it still isn’t right. People are people.

Like I said at the end of the blog last Monday, it would be interesting to see where the journey takes me. There are many posts on Facebook and social media about black Americans who have made significant contributions to our history. One that was posted by my friends Anne and Dawn caught my eye last week.

You may or may not know that I am a private pilot. I passed my check ride in August of 1999. So, when I saw the story of Eugene Bullard, the first African American fighter pilot, come in my news feed on Facebook, I was definitely intrigued.

According to Wikipedia, he was born on October 9, 1895, one of seven children from a Black man and a Creek Indian woman. His father William’s ancestors had been slaves in Haiti to French refuges. They fled to America during the Haitian Revolution and took refuge with the Creek Indians. That is how Eugene’s parents met.

After seeing his father nearly lynched as a preteen, Eugene fled to France where his father said that blacks were not discriminated against like they were in America. He stowed away on a German merchant ship bound for Scotland and then made his way to Paris. Once he settled there, he took on many odd jobs, like boxing and working in a music hall until he enlisted in the First Foreign Regiment of the Foreign Legion on October 19, 1914, just after the start of World War I.

Volunteers from overseas could only serve in the French Colonial Troops. By 1915, he was a machine gunner. After hearing about the horrors of trench warfare, William Bullard wrote to the Secretary of State to bring his son home before he got himself killed. He claimed that Eugene added a year to his age and shouldn’t have been able to enlist in the first place. The French Government denied his request saying that Eugene had been old enough.

After being seriously wounded at the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, he volunteered for the French Air Service in October of 1916 as an air gunner upon his recovery. He received pilot’s license #6950 from the Aero Club de France May 5, 1917 and that is when he started flying as a pilot.

He took part in twenty combat missions with his pet monkey, Jimmy. Sources differ on whether he had any actual kills or not. French authorities could not confirm them, but a few different internet sources did say that he had at least one kill.

When America entered the war, they offered the Americans who were flying for the Lafayette Flying Corps the opportunity to serve for their homeland. Eugene did the required physical needed to obtain a spot but he was denied. The American military said he had to be white to be a pilot. They even got France to agree with them and they dismissed Eugene from the French Air Service in October of 1919. At that point, he returned to Paris.

While in Paris, he worked as a drummer and a night club manager in the local jazz clubs. He would go on to own his own clubs. In 1923, he married Marcelle Straumann and they had two children. Bullard wound up with custody of them upon their divorce in 1931. While working in his night clubs during the German Invasion of France in 1940, he was able to gain valuable information from overhearing the conversations of the high ranking German officers who would come into his clubs. He turned that information over to the French Authorities, and became a spy. When things seemed to be getting worse for the French during the occupation, Bullard escaped with his daughters and wound up in New York City. He took on many odd jobs to make a living and provide for his family, with the last one being an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.

One of the things that I noticed while writing this blog post is how some of our recent book club readings filled in the historical background for it. I thought of them while I was researching Eugene Bullard’s life. A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead talks about the invasion of France and these women’s experiences during it. And The Grace of Silence by Michelle Norris tells the story of a black family moving from Birmingham, Alabama to an all white neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both of these books showed how poorly people were treated because they were either seen as the enemy or as someone who was a lesser person, because of the color of their skin.

Reading memoirs and historical fiction about these times in our history really helps to understand the people and their experiences at that time. I think it refers back to what Carter G. Woodson said about meeting and learning about all of the people around us, hopefully it can lead to better understanding and the ability for all people to get along as a community and a country.

#CarterGWoodson #MichelleNorris #TheGraceofSilence #PeekskillRiots #EugeneBullard #FrenchAirService #Paris #CelebratePerserverance #CarolineMoorhead #PaulRobeson #JimmytheMonkey #France #BattleofVerdun #ATraininWinter #MinnesotaVikings #FighterPilot

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