The story of an incredible person… From the racialized world of Jim Crow Georgia and the boxing rings of England and France to the killing fields of World War One and the celebrated jazz clubs of the Montmartre—Eugene Bullard lived an exceptional life.
Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895, Bullard, like most Southern blacks of his generation, seemed destined for a life of crude “shotgun houses”, low grade labor, perpetual deference, and limited social mobility. Jim Crow, the region’s racial caste system, proved insufferable as it subjected the region’s black residents to vitriolic racism, de jure segregation that was most certainly separate but anything but equal, and political disenfranchisement. Based on his skin color alone, Bullard was born into a lifetime of second-class citizenship. Part of being a second-class citizen meant living under the never ceasing threat of racial violence. In fact, the Jim Crow South’s predilection for terror tactics made an early, but paramount impression on the young Bullard. His father, a man known as ‘Chief Big Ox” for his vaunted strength and supposed Indian ancestry, was the victim of physical and verbal abuse at the warehouse where he worked (his father worked as a drayman and stevedore along Columbus’s riverfront). After remonstrating with the warehouse’s owner, W.C. Brady, the abuse persisted. Infuriated with the elder Bullard’s plea to Brady, the supervisor responded by striking “Chief Big Ox” with an iron hook. The physically superior Bullard subdued his assailant and calmly launched him into a storage cellar. Brady quickly realized Bullard’s innocence in the situation and engineered a compromise between the two men. However, later that evening, a drunken white mob surrounded the Bullard home, attempting to push their way into both doors. The elder Bullard waited inside with his shotgun in hand while the rest of his family huddled together in fright. Luckily the mob, apparently too inebriated to continue, disbanded, but Bullard, fearing for his safety, fled the city while the tensions cooled. The elder Bullard narrowly escaped what would have most certainly been a lynching, but the incident illuminated the horrid reality of Jim Crow so clearly that even young Eugene, still only a child, could easily understand: though no longer slaves, Southern blacks were hardly free.
To another place
Feeling, on one hand, the intolerable restrictions on black life in the South and the natural wonder lust of youth on the other, the young Eugene took to the road at the ripe age of eleven. Even in his adolescence, the headstrong Bullard desired to be his own man, and after traveling with a band of gypsies and using his skillful horsemanship to earn a wage on a number of farms in southern Georgia, he realized that such a goal could never achieved in caste conscious America. The racially liberal environs of Western Europe, the gypsies assured him, had no such color line. Thus after having his leg gashed open by a white passerby in downtown Atlanta for no reason other than that he was sporting a fashionable “Buster Brown” suit, Bullard hopped a series of trains and boats to Norfolk, Virginia where he would eventually stow away on a ship bound for Hamburg, Germany.
Yet he only made it as far as Aberdeen, Scotland. From there, he migrated south, finally arriving in Liverpool. His time in the English port city would be formative as it was there that he found steady pay in professions that, for one, entered him into tight nit professional circles and brought him a modicum of notoriety. His first venture was show business. Upon arriving in Liverpool he found work at the Birkenhead amusement park which proved to be his gateway into a much larger act—the Belle Davis’s Freedman’s Pickaninnies, a vaudeville act specializing in minstrelsy. Modern readers recognize such shows as highly offensive and otherwise demeaning, but Europe was not America. Bullard, always highly self-aware, had little reservations about mocking racial stereotypes because he realized that doing so in Europe did not reinforce any particular racial order or hierarchy. He found the laugh of the European void of the malice and perversity that characterized the contemptuous American laugh. Having a steady job and steady pay allowed him to try his hand at boxing on the weekends. By the turn of the twentieth century boxing had become the sport of choice for working class Englishmen, and a number of African American boxers had gained considerable fame across the channel. Perhaps the most popular was a young Southerner named Aaron Lester Brown who, like Bullard, fled the suffocating environment of the Jim Crow South, earning him the nickname the “Dixie Kid.” Bullard quickly became Brown’s understudy, and before long the two were touring across England and France on the same match card. While visiting as a boxer, he fell in love with Paris, a city that welcomed blacks and exhibited little apprehensions about black and white interactions. He eventually relocated to the city, becoming, in his mind at least, a proud Frenchman.
However, the blaring guns of August 1914 cut his boxing career short. At the age of nineteen, Bullard joined the French Foreign Legion. He fought bravely at the Battle of the Somme, where he proved to be a highly efficient machine gunner. He would go on to survive the initial month of the bloody and prolonged battle of Verdun, but a month into the fighting, an incoming artillery barrage blew open a wound in his thigh as he was carrying a message from one officer to another. Though he would eventually be awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism, his service, at least as an infantryman, would end at Verdun. But Bullard would not be ousted so quickly. After finishing his convalescence, he enrolled in the French aviation school, becoming the first African American military pilot. He went on to fly a number of missions, registering at least one acknowledged “kill”.
America’s involvement in the war, however, re-introduced Bullard to the racism he thought he left behind. His accomplishments were not only ignored by the American press, but Edmund C. Gros, an influential American living in France, successfully terminated his piloting career almost as soon as it began. As American troops crossed the Atlantic, the American army sought to maintain the statutes of Jim Crow—black and white soldiers were kept separate, blacks were normally employed in menial services, and black troops were typically led by white officers. Bullard posed a threat to the standing system at home. A common Jim Crow assumption asserted that black men did not have the mental capacity to operate heavy machinery unsupervised, relegating them to mostly tenant farming and unskilled labor. Bullard, being a pilot, negated such a faulty assumption. More importantly, though, Bullard’s mere presence in France made American whites hoping to not upset the racial order uneasy. The French, while very accepting of black troops, were forced to comply with the American demands to take Bullard off the front lines, as they were desperate for the added American manpower. Thus while Bullard became a national hero in France, he was, if nothing else, scorned by the white American military establishment. Just as he was in his early days in Columbus, America’s involvement in the Great War once again designated him a persona non grata.
But Bullard would carry on. Following the war, he began playing drums for a black American jazz band. His new role would prove fortuitous as Parisian nightlife yearned for this new, inherently African American brand of music. With his proficiency in English and French and his wealth of connections in show business from his time with the Freedman’s Pickaninnies, Bullard became a valuable hiring agent for the jazz clubs of the Montmartre. He quickly befriended Joe Zelli, a nightclub impresario who owned popular clubs in New York and London. With the help of Bullard’s friend Robert Henri, the two obtained an all-night club license and went into business together. Soon Zelli’s, the chosen name of the club, became the most popular club in Paris. He then struck out on his own, buying the club, Le Grand Duc. Though his ownership of the club is contested, his presence in the Montmartre scene was undeniable. He mediated contracts and recruited the black American musicians teeming across the Atlantic, finding them work and introducing them to highly influential and wealthy patrons. Bullard’s time in the Montmartre put him in contact with celebrities like Jack Dean and Fannie Ward and even royalty as Edward Windsor, the Prince of Wales and heir to the English throne was a frequent guest of the Le Grand Duc.
Sadly, whereas the First World War paved the way for Bullard’s entrance into an elite circle of artists and celebrities, the Second World War marked his exit. Fearing the Nazi regime and its racial intolerance, he fled to New York, an ironic twist in an already perplexing life. In New York, he offered to use his influence to help various activist groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But much to his surprise, he was an unknown. Very few Americans knew about his wartime career and even fewer knew about his time in the Montmartre. Already an older gentleman, Bullard spent his last days as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. In 1959 he was the subject of a special edition of the Today Show, where his wartime service and extraordinary life was put on display. But even then, he was introduced only as the building’s black elevator operator, not Eugene Bullard the vaunted prizefighter, jazz drummer, French national hero, celebrated pilot, or nightclub owner. He died soon after, in 1961 at the age of 66, thus ending a remarkable life that was both a triumph and a tragedy.
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Craig Lloyd, Eugene Bullard, Black Expatriate in Jazz-Age Paris (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000).