At the tender age of twelve, Bullard sailed for Europe on the German ship Matherus. He debarked in Scotland, where he worked at odd jobs to make ends meet. He soon moved to Liverpool, England, where he found himself attracted to the world of boxing and began training for the sport. He then went to London as the protegé of Aaron Lester Brown, the "Dixie Kid," who eventually arranged for Bullard's first fight in Paris. After that first taste of the city, Bullard knew that he didn't want to live anywhere else.
Back in London, Bullard joined the traveling vaudeville troupe Freedman's Pickanninies as a performer. He reasoned that when the troupe got to Paris, he would not move on with them. Once in the City of Light, he returned to boxing, learning French and German during his first several months in town. With the outbreak of World War I, he joined the French Foreign Legion.
As a member of the Foreign Legion, Bullard was wounded in battle at Verdun during World War I and was awarded the Croix de Guerre with a bronze star for heroism. He then became the first ever African-American fighter pilot—training with the French and then joining the Lafayette Escadrille, an American flying corps under French command. (At that time, the U.S. armed forces did not permit blacks to fly.) Bullard flew at least twenty missions with two squadrons in the Lafayette Escadrille before Dr. Edmund Gros of the American Hospital arranged to have him permanently grounded because of Gros’ own race prejudice.
Bullard next to his plane with his pet monkey Jimmy
Bullard's Military Medals
Bullard capitalized on the jazz craze that swept France after the war, learning to play the drums and then going to work as the drummer, manager, and artistic director at Zelli’s night club in Montmartre (in the area that is now called Pigalle). He continued to box during this time, and fought his last professional bout in Egypt in 1922. Returning to Paris, he married his French girlfriend and continued to work at Zelli’s. Sometime later, he went on to manage the night club called Le Grand Duc. He would eventually buy this club, and another called l’Escadrille just a few meters away. Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Langston Hughes worked at the Grand Duc while Bullard was manager there.
In addition to Le Grand Duc and L’Escadrille, Gene Bullard owned and operated Bullard’s Athletic Club in the same neighborhood. Professionals such as “Panama” Al Brown trained there, but the club was primarily a place for everyday residents to exercise—including women and children! His businesses continued to do well in the 1930s despite the Great Depression because of his ability to speak fluent French. He eventually sold Le Grand Duc, but kept the Escadrille and the gym.
Ad for Bullard's Athletic Club
In 1939, Bullard was recruited by French military intelligence to become a part of the counterintelligence network formed to identify and watch German agents operating on behalf of the Nazis. He would spy on Germans who frequented his establishments.
Just before the Germans advanced into Paris in 1940, Americans began leaving France. Bullard opened his establishments to friends in need of assistance during the evacuation. In 1940, he closed his businesses and sought to join his old World War I regiment. He left Paris on foot, marching south. He joined a unit in Orléans several days later, and was injured by an artillery shell on June 18. He was forced to flee France and return to the U.S., where he was once again subjected to daily humiliation and discrimination because of his race.
Bullard died forty-nine years ago today, in New York City. He was buried in a French Foreign Legion uniform, and received a military funeral service. Per his request, a French flag was draped over his coffin. Members of the Federation of French War Veterans, France Forever, and the Verdun Society attended the service. Afterward, the French War Veterans led the procession of cars to his final resting place the French War Veterans Cemetery in Flushing, NY.
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