Eugene Jacques Bullard (9 October 1895 – 12 October 1961) was the first African American aviator and one of only two black combat pilots in World War I. He flew for the American Lafayette Flying Corps but before he joined this illustrious group of adventurers he was in the Foreign Legion where he served honorably on the front lines. He also had one of the most amazing life stories I’ve ever come across. In his final years Bullard worked as a doorman and elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center–imagine how many people simply walked passed him without ever a pause to consider who he really was.
Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia on Oct. 9, 1894 and at the age of 11 he left home to seek greater opportunities outside of the deep South and eventually to travel to Europe. By 1913 he was in France making do as a prizefighter. Like many expat Americans living in France, when WWI started in 1914, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He rose to the rank of corporal and was wounded during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. He was decorated with the French Croix de Guerre and other awards for his bravery in combat. While recuperating from his wounds Bullard accepted an offer to join the French Air Force and obtained permission to become a pilot. After completing flight training Bullard then joined the Lafayette Flying Corps with whom he flew combat missions in the latter months of 1917. He is credited with shooting down one and possibly two German aircraft. Due to a dispute with a French officer he was removed from the French Air Force (the American unit was essentially a French squadron) and placed in the 170th Infantry Regiment where he remained until the end of the war. He later went on to live out a remarkable life as a prize fighter, jazz drummer, and nightclub owner and later married and became father two two girls. In 1939, although he was prepared to work against the Germans as an informer and spy, he was convinced to leave France ahead of the German invasion and he eventually waited out the war in the United States. He tried to go back to his old life in Paris after the war but his nightclub was gone and things really never were the same as the interwar years. He passed away alone and poor in Harlem, New York, in 1961.
There is a book out on Bullard’s amazing life entitled The Black Swallow of Death: The Incredible Story of Eugene Jacques Bullard, The World’s First Black Combat Aviator by P.J. Carisella and James W. Ryan which was published in 1972. Wikipedia has a good entry on Bullard too but one of the best articles I’ve read about him appeared in the December 1967 issue of Ebony Magazine that I found on Google Books. I took the liberty to copy this and put it into an easier to read format below.