Eugene Jacques Bullard is considered to be the first African-American military pilot to fly in combat, and the only African-American pilot in World War I. Ironically, he never flew for the United States.
Born October 9, 1895, in Columbus, Georgia, to William Bullard, a former slave, and Josephine Bullard, Eugene’s early youth was unhappy. He made several unsuccessful attempts to run away from home, one of which resulted in his being returned home and beaten by his father. In 1906, at the age of 11, Bullard ran away for good, and for the next six years, he wandered the South in search of freedom.
In 1912 he stowed away on the Marta Russ, a German freighter bound for Hamburg, and ended up in Aberdeen, Scotland. From there he made his way to London, where he worked as a boxer and slapstick performer in Belle Davis’s Freedman Pickaninnies, an African American entertainment troupe. In 1913, Bullard went to France for a boxing match. Settling in Paris, he became so comfortable with French customs that he decided to make a home there. He later wrote, “… it seemed to me that French democracy influenced the minds of both black and white Americans there and helped us all act like brothers.”
After World War I had begun in the summer of 1914, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. While serving with the 170th Infantry Regiment, Bullard fought in the the Battle of Verdun (February to December 1916), where he was wounded seriously. He was taken from the battlefield and sent to Lyon to recuperate. While on leave in Paris, Bullard bet a friend $2,000 that despite his color he could enlist in the French flying service. Bullard’s determination paid off, and in November 1916 he entered the Aéronautique Militaire. Author: Dominick Pisano. See full article here: https://airandspace.si.edu/stories/editorial/eugene-j-bullard