It was the spring of 1916.
Four American soldiers of the French Foreign Legion sat in commiseration at a Paris café. Eugene Jacques Bullard (1895–1961) was convalescing from a shrapnel wound. “Gene, suppose they find you’re too lame for the infantry?” one of the white soldiers seated at the table with him asked.
Bullard replied: “I’ll go into the Air Service.”
“Air Force?” the white soldier asked. “You know damn well, Gene, there aren’t any Negroes in aviation.”
“Sure do,” Bullard said. “That’s why I want to get into it. There must be a first to everything, and I’m going to be the first Negro military pilot.”
That friendly banter turned into a $2,000 wager. Bullard, who would become the first certified Black American aviator, won the bet.
While welcoming any challenge was routine for the Georgia-born Bullard, a Black pilot, especially in 1916, was an unheard-of notion. But young Bullard had grown up dealing with Southern bigotry and was especially inspired by being in a place where a man’s social prospects were not limited by his skin color: France. So he set out in 1904, determined to get there, and fly.
At age 10, Bullard was caught as a stowaway aboard a merchant freighter, and was immediately put ashore in Aberdeen, Scotland. There he took on a variety of jobs for survival. By age 16, he’d become a bantamweight boxer in Liverpool, and a lightweight champion by age 17. After 42 professional bouts, Paris became a reality for him, arriving in August of 1913. One year later, Germany declared war on France, and Bullard joined the Foreign Legion.
Wounded three times, Bullard was too disabled for further infantry service. It was then that, remembering that friendly Paris café wager, he thought of rejoining as an aviator. He was later accepted into the French Aéronautique Militaire as a machine gunner. Bullard then learned about the Lafayette Flying Corps, which he joined. He was assigned to 93 Spad Squadron, where he flew some 20 missions.
With the United States’ entry into the war, the U.S. Army Air Service began recruiting Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps. Bullard passed the medical examination but was not accepted because at that time, Black people were barred from flying in the U.S. service. He was discharged from the French Air Force after a fight with an officer while off duty and was transferred back to the French infantry in January 1918, where he served until the Armistice.
Bullard would again meet with his three friends in Paris. He donned his blue aviator’s tunic with wings on the collar. The white soldier admitted: “Bullard, I am sorry I lost that kind of money to you or anyone else, but I am glad that the first military Negro pilot aviator came from Dixie.”
In his own words, Bullard was the “first-known Negro military pilot.” That, at least, was what was printed on his business cards. He died on Oct. 12, 1961.