Because this extraordinary World War I soldier is still being left out of the story 100 years later.
You never know who you’re sharing an elevator with — and back when Rockefeller Center still had elevator operators, it was easy to ignore the elderly Black man in the corner. Neither Eugene Bullard nor his neat uniform commanded the same attention as the 1950s Manhattan elites who shared his little space every evening.
But little did they know that they were sharing a lift with an American who had been smack in the middle of the most dramatic twists and turns of the 20th century. Bullard was a boxer, World War I fighter pilot, Paris nightclub owner and World War II resistance fighter. He escaped the Gestapo and was beaten by police at a civil-rights demonstration. But even for many years after his death, his legacy remained that of an unnoticed, forgotten elevator operator.
“THE TRUTH IS OUR FIGHT, AND THE FIGHT OF THOSE WHO LOOKED UP TO US AS HEROES, DIDN’T END WITH THE ‘WAR TO END ALL WARS.’ ”
Many details of Bullard’s life remain shrouded in myth, some of which was his own making. And who can blame him? He was born in rural Georgia to a large, poor Black family, and the odds were stacked against young Eugene. His family struggled to support themselves and, by Bullard’s recollection, faced violence with terrifying frequency. A lynch mob killed his older brother, Hector, and Eugene nearly lost his life on more than one occasion to racist attacks.
But when Bullard was a teenager, he found an unlikely escape — he stowed away on a ship bound for the U.K. in 1912 and ended up in Liverpool, where he launched his career as a formidable boxer. He soon took his show on the road and became one of thousands of Black Americans seeking fortune in France. France in the early 1900s wasn’t exactly an antiracist utopia, but it was a huge improvement on Georgia. He wrote later in life that “the French democracy influenced the minds of both white and black Americans there,” helping them to “act like brothers” and convincing him that “God really did create all men equal, and it was easy to live that way.”
When war broke out in August 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion and, after several months in the trenches, he applied to become a fighter pilot. To the surprise of many white Americans who were already flying, Bullard was accepted, becoming one of only two recorded Black flyboys in the entire war. Photos from Bullard’s time as a “knight of the air” show a rakish young fighter pilot. He had a pet monkey named Jimmy and painted a defiant slogan on the side of his plane: “Tout le Sang Qui Coule Est Rouge” — or “All Blood Runs Red.” Though he had no official kills, he quickly gained respect as a capable, professional pilot. He also got into a few fights on the ground, mostly with white soldiers who had a problem with his race — and, as a professional boxer, he usually made his point clear.
But even though Bullard had been a brave, reliable flyer for France, the U.S. Army ignored his transfer application. He took this to heart, remaining in his adopted land after the war and managing one of the most fashionable jazz clubs in Paris, Le Grand Duc. His guests included fellow African-American ex-pat Josephine Baker, the Prince of Wales, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. For a while, he even had his own club, calling it L’Escadrille.
After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, his clientele started to include top German officers. Bullard, who spoke German, offered to spy for the French Resistance — and was even wounded fighting again for the French cause. With Europe heating up, Bullard and his French-American children made a hasty but necessary move back to the United States that left the family with little money and far fewer options than in France. After settling in a tiny apartment in Harlem packed with World War I model airplanes, Bullard took up his least glamorous job yet, as a Rockefeller Center’s elevator operator, where he remained — largely anonymous — for the rest of his life.
“He had many reasons to resent his native country,” says biographer Craig Lloyd. But Bullard never “gave up his American idealism.”
A hundred years later, the contributions of Black soldiers have gone largely ignored. Bullard’s name is still missing from the French memorial commemorating American World War I flyers. Recently, Max Brooks’ graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters brought the story of the legendary African-American regiment back to life — but hammered home a grim truth through the novel’s narrator that reminds us of Bullard’s story.
“The truth is our fight, and the fight of those who looked up to us as heroes, didn’t end with the ‘War to End All Wars.’ ”