His father was born into slavery, but he would live to have a dogfight with German pilots in the skies over Europe.
Eugene Bullard, who became known as the Black Swallow of Death, was the first African-American pilot to fly in combat.
He now has a statue in his honor, unveiled Wednesday in Warner Robins, Georgia, at the Museum of Aviation next to Robins Air Force Base, and about 100 miles south of Atlanta.
His distant cousin, Harriett Bullard White, told CNN she wept with joy as she placed a wreath at the statue during a ceremony, attended by Air Force officers, nearly two dozen family members and several surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“All my life I’d known how great he was. Of course, no one else knew who he is,” White said. “He’s an American hero and someone all Americans should know about.”
An African-American who became a French fighter pilot
Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1895, Bullard ran away from home as an 11-year-old, wandering the South for years before stowing away on a freight ship destined for Scotland.
The next year, 1913, he settled in France. When World War I broke out, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, serving first in the infantry.
But after being wounded in battle, Bullard made a $2,000 bet with a friend that he could become a military aviator despite his skin color, according to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.
He won the bet, receiving his wings as a member of the Aéronautique Militaire in May 1917. That November, he claimed he shot down two German fighters, though accounts vary as to whether those aerial victories could be confirmed.
Black military pilots wouldn’t become common in America until the famed Tuskegee Airmen began training to fly in 1941. President Harry Truman formally desegregated the entire US armed forces with an executive order in 1948.
He was a pioneer
For decades, Bullard was a man apart.
After his World War I service, Bullard’s life had other brushes with history. He owned an American-style nightclub in Paris’ Montmarte district where he would have “rubbed elbows” with expat writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Smithsonian says.
White, his distant cousin, told CNN that the poet Langston Hughes worked as a dishwasher in Bullard’s nightclub, and that Bullard listed boxing legend Jack Johnson as a reference on his resume.
Ernest Hemingway even based a minor character on Bullard in the novel The Sun Also Rises, according to the University of Georgia Press.
Returning to America after World War II, Bullard was active in the civil rights movement. During one confrontation, a bus driver ordered him to sit in the back of the bus.
In 1959, the French government made him a knight of the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest order and decoration.
Though in life Bullard was never allowed to join the US military as an aviator, he was posthumously commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Air Force in 1994.
“To see the statue, I feel like I’ve conquered,” White said. “He was so deserving. It’s never too late to acknowledge his legacy.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Bullard’s cousin. The correct spelling is Harriett Bullard White.