Bronze Statue Honoring First Black Fighter Pilot Unveiled in Georgia

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1971

Eugene Bullard isn’t a household name, but his inspiring story of bravery, valor, and perseverance is surely worth telling.

A bronze statue honoring the Columbus, Georgia, native was finally unveiled on Wednesday before a cheering crowd of descendants, U.S. service members, French officials and other guests, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported.

Bullard, the child of a former slave who fled the Jim Crow South after witnessing the near lynching of his father, would go on to fight for the French Foreign Legion in World War I. He managed to have a little fun along the way, boxing professionally and drumming for a jazz band in Paris. He even rubbed elbows with the likes of trumpeter Louis Armstrong.

Eugene Bullard Statue Unveiled
Eugene Bullard fled the Jim Crow South as a child, joined a band a gypsies and then stowed away on a German ship to Europe. (Photos: WMAZ 13 / video screen shot and Wiki Commons)

His journey as a stowaway across the pond to Europe was just the start of his incredible legacy. A war hero, Bullard received France’s Croix de Guerre for his valor at the Battle of Verdun and later joined its national air service in 1916 to become the first Black fighter pilot.

Now the state that he fled more than 100 years ago is honoring him on his birthday with a gleaming bronze statue.

“I’m just so glad to live to see his state — the state that he ran from — recognize his greatness, and call its native son home,” said Ms. Harriett Bullard, one of Bullard’s descendants.

Harriet Was among the 20 descendants who attended the unveiling ceremony Wednesday at the Museum of Aviation in Robins Air Force Base near Warner Robins, Georgia, per the AJC. Officials with Georgia’s WWI Centennial Commission pulled away a blue cloth to reveal the 6-foot-3-inch bronze memorial honoring the man fittingly dubbed “The Black Swallow of Death.”

According to  BlackPast.org, “Bullard quickly became known for flying into dangerous situations often with a pet monkey. He amassed a distinguished record, flying twenty combat missions [and] downing at least one German plane.”

Vietnam War vet and Centennial Commission member Rick Elder called Bullard a “true hero.”

“For him to be standing out there — now we’re finally getting to the point that we have honored him in a proper way.”

Elder added that Bullard was the “father” for African-American airmen like himself, including the Tuskegee Airmen, who fought in WWII and helped desegregate the U.S. military.

Artist Gregory Johnson, who sculpted Bullard’s statute, said his design was based on black and white photos of the French war hero. The monument, Johnson said, depicts Bullard in his military uniform donning a pinkie ring, medals and a braided military decoration known as a fourragère. His gaze is set skyward and his arms folded flatly across his chest as he stands atop a granite based etched with his name. 

“It is not how hard you fall, it is how high you bounce,” Johnson told the AJC, mesmerized by Bullard’s resilience. “And this guy bounced really high.”

The statue was made possible thanks to private donations raised by the WWI Centennial Commission, according to the outlet.

Before returning to the U.S. in the late 1950s, Bullard had been a spy for the French Resistance after the Nazi invasion of Paris. He would settle in New York City with his daughters, where he worked as an elevator operator in the Rockefeller building and took up other odd jobs to make ends meet. The building is now home to NBC’s the “TODAY” show, which Bullard interviewed with in 1954.

Like most Black folks, he also faced race-based discrimination and was once beaten when he refused to sit at the back of the bus.

“Even though he encountered racism there a lot, he never let that get him down,” Craig Lloyd, a former Columbus State University archivist and author of the biography “Eugene Bullard: Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris.” told the AJC . “He never made a big thing of it either. He just kept going.”

In 1959, Bullard was honored with France’s highest award after being named a knight of the Legion of Honor.

He died in Harlem in October 1961, just two months after receiving an intestinal cancer diagnosis. Decades later, Bullard was inducted into Georgia’s Aviation Hall of Fame at the same museum where his bronze statue now stands.

Watch more in the video below.