Sunday, May 27, 2018

Black Americans and the Great War

One of the things we can't help but notice after moving to France is just how many black Americans over the years have become expats, too.  Josephine Baker, Sidney Bechet, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, and Benny Luke come immediately to mind.

Jude and I recently attended a lecture given by Curtis Young at the Columbia University, Paris.  He has added his name to the long list of black American expats who have found a better life here.  His lecture brought up two figures from history who we knew nothing about.

One of the people Curtis Young talked about is a black airman who flew for the French during the Great War (WWI).  His name is Eugene Bullard.  His adventures are the stuff of legend, including shooting down one or two German aircraft, and being referred to as the Black Swallow of Death.  By the end of the first world war the Black Swallow of Death had been decorated ten times.

After General Pershing arrived in France, M. Bullard was required to report for duty.  But he was stopped at the front door by a white guard to told him that blacks were not allowed.  Instead of backing down, M. Bullard took the guard's gun  and demanded to see the man's commanding officer.  The officer must have known of M. Bullard because he was allowed in to the meeting.  But as was standard practice with Jim Crow America he was never allowed to fly for the US.

There is a rather telling memo describing the "Negro Question" and the treatment of black American soldiers.

...Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being with whom relations of business or service only are possible. The black is constantly being censured for his want of intelligence and discretion, his lack of civic and professional conscience, and for his tendency toward undue familiarity...

The French were appalled and set about collecting every single copy of the memo.  Original copies of the document can be found here in Paris in the National Archives.  They are numbered so they knew when they had collected all of them.

After the war M. Bullard opened a famous nightspot on Montmartre called l'Escradrille.  When the Nazis occupied Paris he spied for the French.  He used his nightclub and good knowledge German to listen in on occupiers conversations.

Later in the war M.Bullard fought alongside the French in the Bordeaux area, but had to escape to Spain and then to Portugal.  Fleeing the Nazis he returned to New York.    After the second world war he had been decorated five more times.

Fame and recognition did not follow him.  Americans seemed to know nothing of the decorated war hero in their midst.  In fact, he was beaten during the Peekskill Riots that had been instigated  by white supremacists.

He tried to return to Paris and his l'Escadrille nightclub.  Since it had been bombed during the war and having little money to rebuild the club he was constrained to remain in New York.  This meant finding work "fit for a black man" as he could.  Late in life he worked as a lift operator at Rockefeller Center.

In 1959 Dave Garaway interviewed Eugene Bullard for the Today Show.  This seems to be the most recognition America ever gave the black man who lived for a time in Paris, France.

The French, however, never forgot Eugene Bullard.  In 1954 he was one of three men invited to rekindle the flame to the unknown soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

[Inspired and informed by a 2018 lecture given at Columbia University, Paris, France by Curtis Young]

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