By Annette Hinkle
He began life as a runaway and went on to have a career as a boxer, a World War I flying ace, a jazz musician, a Paris nightclub owner and a spy for the French resistance. He was multilingual, played a role in the Civil Rights movement, and was even the manager and tour director for Louis Armstrong.
Meet Eugene Bullard, the most accomplished man you’ve never heard of.
Bullard is the subject of “All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy,” a new book published by Hanover Square Press which was co-written by Southampton residents Phil Keith and Tom Clavin. The book has garnered much attention since its release in early November, and the film rights have already been nabbed by screenwriter, producer, and actress Lena Waithe and her team who have a production deal with Amazon.
“The latest we heard is a screenwriter is attached to develop a ‘pitch’ that is about to go to financing entities,” Clavin said of the deal.
On Saturday, December 21, at 2 p.m., Clavin and Keith will give a book talk on Bullard at the Eastville Community Historical Society’s Heritage House in Sag Harbor. Both writers have been columnists for The Southampton Press, and on November 20, they spoke about the book at Rogers Memorial Library in a discussion led by Joseph Shaw, executive editor of the Express News Group.
“Sometimes the stars align, and when you’re a writer, you’re always looking for a good idea,” said Keith, who notes that inspiration struck as he was writing another book on World War I and researching American pilots from the period, including Eddie Rickenbacker.
“In the footnotes of Rickenbacker, I read about a fellow named Eugene Bullard who was the first African-American fighter pilot,” he said. “It wasn’t maybe two days later, someone had sent to Joe [Shaw] a clipping about Gene, and Joe said ‘I would love to read a book about this guy.’”
Clavin adds that finding a fascinating real-life figure who hasn’t yet been written about is the holy grail of historical fiction. In this case, Bullard was exactly that sort of figure. Clavin compares him to a Forrest Gump-like character who had the uncanny ability of being in the right place at the right time during some of the most important historical events of the 20th century.
“He did so many different things, he seemed to have five, six or seven lives,” said Clavin. “He was someone who never seemed to say, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ The reservoir of resiliency was so deep, including suffering wounds in combat and when he was once a spy for the French resistance, but also the racial challenges and barriers he faced.
“He was a poster boy for resiliency and courage — he was such a sourced figure, how is it people knew nothing about him? “ Clavin added. “That’s gold. To write about someone yet to be discovered is exciting.”
Clavin and Keith began working on “All Blood Runs Red” back in 2015, and when asked why Bullard is not a more widely-known figure in this country today, Keith explains that it had to do with his race.
“The first important reason is that when he flew and became famous as an aviator, he flew for France in World War I,” he said. “Because of the color of his skin, he was not wanted by the American Air Service. When the Americans got into the war in 1917, Gene raced off to sign up for the American Air Service with about 25 white friends.
“They all passed the physical and were all accepted, except Gene,” he said. “There was an official written policy in the American Air Service that blacks were incapable of flying an aircraft. They couldn’t even be mechanics. They were thought to not understand how engines were put together. So when Bullard flew and performed the deeds he did, they were for France and word never got back to America.”
Racism was a familiar theme in Bullard’s life from day one. Born poor in 1895 as one of 10 children (seven of whom survived infancy) in Columbus, Georgia, Bullard’s mother was a Creek Indian and his father, who was nicknamed Big Ox, came from Haitian French ancestors who arrived in the U.S. as slaves.
One night after fighting with his white boss, a mob came to the house with intentions to lynch Bullard’s father, who sat behind the door with a loaded shotgun. They went away without incident, but Bullard recalls his father saying there was less prejudice in France, which is why at age 12, Bullard, with $1.50 in his pocket, ran away from home. He took a train to Atlanta and worked a series of odd jobs, including as a jockey, in a barbershop, and at a brick shop.
Then he set out for another country.
“Eventually he rode under a railroad car all the way to Newport News,” said Keith. “He found a ship that looked big enough to cross the ocean, stowed away in the vessel which had a crew that spoke another language he thought may be French. It was German and they were going to Glasgow, Scotland. The crew found him and let him work his passage across the Atlantic, and his adventure began in Europe.”
Clavin explained that while working a lot of different jobs in England, at some point Bullard came to a gymnasium that was training boxers.
“The guy at the gym gave him a job and Bullard said, ‘Can I practice?’ He became a welter weight contender,” said Clavin.
It was boxing that finally took Bullard to France. He traveled to Paris with a group of boxers for a series of fights, and when they left to go back to England, Bullard said he was staying and continued to work as a fighter who took other jobs between bouts.
Then came the war and Bullard’s stint as a soldier and a pilot. October 1914, when he turned 19, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He was made a machine gunner and after being wounded twice, including in the trenches at Fort Douaumont in Verdun in 1915 where one million shells fell in one day, Bullard was deemed by the doctors too damaged to return to the trenches — so he went to flight school and became a pilot.
“He knew he was about to become the first African-American pilot in history,” said Keith. “He flew 25 to 27 missions in 1917. We believe he shot down two German planes, and the second plane he shot down did the favor of shooting him down.”
Though his plane crashed with 97 bullet holes in it, Bullard survived and was rescued by his fellow crewmen.
“Back in Paris, after the war there was not a big demand for fighter pilots. He did box again but had been wounded, so he learned to play the drums, and became a jazz musician, and then became a manager of clubs in Paris,” said Clavin.
Eventually Bullard bought a club of his own, “L’Escadrille” (the squadron) where he was the drummer, the manager and maître d, and became friends with the patrons. Throughout the 1920s, a veritable who’s who of famous figures flocked to Bullard’s club, including Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
“Langston Hughes was Gene’s dishwasher,” Clavin said. “Hemingway became a friend – a jazz drummer in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ is based on Bullard … People gravitated toward him.”
And in a remarkable coincidence, Clavin notes that Dooley Wilson, the piano player in the film “Casablanca,” was one of the musicians at a club Bullard managed.
In the late 1930s, L’escadrille became a popular spot among the German crowd. A French policeman who was also a member of the French resistance asked Bullard to listen in on the German’s conversations and report back to them.
“He plied the Germans with champagne pretending he didn’t speak German, but he knew it fluently,” said Keith. “He was the first to get information that the Germans would invade Poland. The French police told their superiors who ignored the information.”
When World War II broke out, Bullard rejoined the military as a machine gunner. After the war, he returned to the U.S. and lived in Spanish Harlem. In 1949, he attended a Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, with a bus load of other concert-goers who were attacked by police and white nationalists who wanted to keep the concert from taking place.
“Bullard makes his way to the entrance, is attacked and beaten so badly he lost sight in his left eye,” said Clavin. “He got back up and walked into the arena and became an early Civil Rights pioneer.”
The final chapter of Bullard’s life came in his last years when he worked as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center in New York. Dave Garroway, the original Today Show host, noticed Bullard wearing military medals on his uniform and asked about them. Garroway then invited him to come on the show and talk about his service in the French military.
“That was his 15 minutes of fame,” said Clavin.
Bullard died in New York on October 12, 1961, at the age of 66 and many of the details in Clavin and Keith’s book were taken from Bullard’s own handwritten autobiography, “All Blood Runs Red,” which Keith found in the archives at Columbus State University in Georgia. Keith notes that it had been written longhand in French on yellow pads, and though it had been translated, transcribed and shopped around, publishers wouldn’t bite, saying that no one would believe the story.
Incidentally, the phrase “All Blood Runs Red” is what Bullard painted on the side of his airplane in World War I, a reference to the notion that all men are equal, no matter the color of their skin. It turns out that Bullard’s instincts to escape the Jim Crow South as a youngster were good ones. During his time in Europe, Bullard’s older brother, Hector, was hanged by white squatters in a dispute over a small Georgia peach farm that had been left to him by his maternal grandmother.
Phil Keith and Tom Clavin offer a reading and book signing of “All Blood Runs Red” on Saturday, December 21, at 2 p.m. at the Eastville Community Historical Society’s Heritage House, 139 Hampton Street, Sag Harbor. Also coming in the new year is a talk on January 30 at the Atlanta Historical Society in Georgia, and presentations at Quogue Library and Westhampton Beach Library (dates to be determined). For information on the Sag Harbor event visit eastvillehistorical.org.