Celebrating Eugene Bullard — History’s First African American Pilot
Eugene Bullard is widely recognized as the first Black military pilot. Unfortunately, because of the atmosphere of bigotry in the United States during WWI, he wouldn’t have even been considered. Luckily, France recognized his abilities and accepted him. Not only an accomplished pilot, he lived a fascinating life, at one time as a boxer, another as a night club owner in Paris… he even managed to evade the Gestapo during WWII.
Prior to becoming a pilot, Eugene Bullard served approximately three to four years in the French Foreign Legion as member of the infantry. One of the units he was a member of included the 170th infantry. This unit was nicknamed “The Swallows of Death” and is where he earned his nickname as the “Black Swallow of Death”. Due to injuries he stustained in his battles that prevented him from continuing his service in the infantry he was afforded the opportunity to join the French Flying Corp.
During his lifetime, Eugene Ballard was awarded fifteen French war medals. Including the Knight of the Légion d’honneur, Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal.
And while I’m on the subject of African-Americans in aviation, I’d also like to acknowledge the contributions of black women — in this case, a trio of female NASA astronauts. Jeanette Epps, Stephanie Wilson and Dr. Yvonne Cagle refused to take “no” for an answer and as a result, they have contributed so much to the face of science. These three were the focus of the book Hidden Figures: The Story of African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly.