What has gone down in history as the Peekskill Riot was an attack in 1949 by a horde of white supremacists on African-Americans attending a Civil Rights benefit concert in Peekskill, Westchester County, NY. The show, scheduled for August 27th, was headlined by bass-baritone Paul Robeson, the left-wing campaigner and advocate of racial equality.
Just before the singer’s arrival in Peekskill, concertgoers were brutally attacked by some three hundred troublemakers, many of them carrying baseball bats. As the local police did not intervene, thirteen people were wounded in the mayhem. The concert was cancelled and postponed until September 4th. With local labor unions providing security, the event proceeded that night before an audience of 20,000 people. Robeson was joined on stage by folk singers Pete Seeger, Hope Foye and others.
As members of the audience left the venue, mobs pelted their cars with rocks and stones. Some individuals were pulled from their vehicles and beaten up, but no arrests were made. State officials and newspapers blamed Paul Robeson and friends for provoking the violence in which one hundred and forty people were hurt. Clobbered by state troopers, one of those injured in the altercation was an ageing civil rights activist named Eugene Bullard.
Born in 1895 in the small town of Columbus, Georgia, Eugene Jacques Bullard was the seventh of ten children in the family of William Octave “Big Ox” Bullard, a black man from Martinique, and Josephine “Yokalee”Thomas, an indigenous Creek woman. Local racism was rampant. When Eugene’s father got into a fight at work with his white supervisor, a lynch mob gathered outside the family house. William Octave survived, but was forced to go into hiding.
As a teenager, Eugene ran away from home and moved to Atlanta (accounts differ, but he may have been only eleven when he left home). A free spirit, he intended to travel to Europe where – as rumor would have it – racial discrimination was less prevalent. In 1912 he stowed away on the German freighter Marta Russ out of Norfolk, Virginia, bound for Hamburg. He was dropped off in Aberdeen, Scotland, traveled south to Merseyside and spent some time in Liverpool.
Having found work at Birkenhead’s amusement park, he was offered an opportunity to join the “Pickaninnies,” an African-American touring vaudeville act specializing in minstrelsy led by New Orleans-born singer and dancer Belle Davis (the “Queen of Ragtime Singers”). Having escaped malicious racism in Georgia, Bullard was not worried about perpetuating derisive stereotypes to amuse audiences. His own survival was at stake. A steady job and spare time allowed him to test his talent at boxing which, at the time, was a wildly popular spectator sport.
A number of African-American fighters had gained a reputation in Britain and across the Channel. One of them, a fellow Southerner who had fled racism, was Aaron Lester Brown, nicknamed the “Dixie Kid.” Bullard became his understudy and before long the two journeymen started touring England and France on the same match card.
Having fought a bout in Paris in 1913, Eugene decided to relocate to the city where he felt at ease and unburdened by racial issues. Soon he declared himself to be a proud Frenchman.
World War One Gunner & Pilot
At the outbreak of the First World War, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion at a time when volunteers from overseas were only permitted to serve in the French colonial troops. Just nineteen years old, he was trained as a machine gunner and saw heavy action near the Somme River.
With the escalation of hostilities, volunteers were given the choice to transfer to other French Army units. At his own request, Eugene joined the crack troops of the 170th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed “Les Hirondelles de la Mort” (Swallows of Death). Bullard fought at Champagne and Verdun until, in March 1916, he was severely wounded and taken out of ground combat permanently.
During his convalescence at a Lyon clinic, he was cited for acts of valor and awarded the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) on July 3, 1917. Having fully recovered, Eugene volunteered for the French Air Service as a gunner and was stationed near Bordeaux. There he was made aware of the Lafayette Escadrille, a glamorous squad of American fighter pilots flying under the French flag.
His plea to train as an airman was granted. Having earned his license, Eugene joined the Lafayette Flying Corps, the first ever African-American to take to the air in combat. He took part in over twenty battle missions.
When America officially entered the war in 1917, the US Army Air Service convened a board to recruit American pilots flying in French service. Having passed his examination, Eugene was not accepted, ostensibly because he did not hold the required officer rank. In actuality, only white pilots were selected. Even in France, American racial prejudice had come to haunt him.
The extent of discrimination became evident in May 1919 after publication of the “Linard Memo” in the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis (edited by W.E.B. DuBois). Signed by Colonel J.L.A. Linard on behalf of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), the memo voiced concern that black soldiers serving in French units were treated with too much “familiarity and indulgence.” The implied suggestion of imposing Jim Crow segregation was quietly discarded by the French authorities.
Eugene served beyond the Armistice not being discharged until October 1919, but he had no intention to return to the United States. He settled in Paris at a moment that the city was buzzing. American youngsters who were eager to escape Prohibition arrived in droves, taking advantage of a strong dollar against weak European currencies.
Dancing venues and cabaret clubs opened up all over the city. Bullard showed his versatility by training as a drummer under the tutelage of Louis Mitchell, the outstanding black leader of the Seven Spades Band who had introduced jazz in London (1914) and Paris (1917).
In 1922 Eugene joined the newly opened Club Zelli at Montmartre’s Rue Fontaine. Born in Rome, Giuseppe Salvatore [Joe] Zelli, “King of Cabaret Keepers,” had settled in New York at a young age and worked as a barkeeper. He joined the Italian Army at the start of World War I and settled in Paris after the Armistice. His club was popular with the many Americans who were residing in the city. Between 1922 and 1924 Bullard played drums for Joe Zelli’s Zig Zag Band and managed the club’s roster of musicians and performers.
He then acquired his own establishment Le Grand Duc. Located at 52 Rue Pigalle, he turned the struggling venue into a “must go” place. Being one of few owners licensed to stay open past midnight, Bullard catered to the passion for jazz and modern dance. Rue Pigalle became a vibrant street filled with African-American clubs where white and black revelers mixed freely and enjoyed the nightlife.
Bullard booked talent ranging from Ada “Bricktop” Smith (who would later open her own club at 66 Rue Pigalle) to Josephine Baker and Florence Jones. The aspiring poet Langston Hughes worked as a dishwasher for him. The whole of the extended American community in Paris wanted to be seen in his club, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Nancy Cunard or Fred Astaire. British visitors included Noel Coward and Edward, Prince of Wales.
Some literary critics contend that the nameless black drummer at Zelli’s club who briefly appears in Hemingway’s 1926 roman-à-clef The Sun Also Rises was modeled after Bullard.
Having been introduced to the aristocratic family of Louis Albert de Straumann family, Bullard started dating his daughter Marcelle Eugénie with the blessing of her parents. The couple married on July 17, 1923, in a civil ceremony at the City Hall of the 10th arrondissement. The wedding party took place at the grand Brasserie Universelle on Avenue de l’Opéra.
Amongst the guests were high-brow relatives and prominent associates on her side, and friends from the military and entertainment world on his. Eugene and Marcelle honeymooned in in the elegant seaside resort of Biarritz; the first apartment they shared offered a view of the Eiffel Tower across the River Seine. The couple had two daughters, Jacqueline was born in 1924 and Lolita Josephine in 1927, but the marriage did not last. Divorced in 1935, Eugene gained custody of both children.
As the “roaring twenties” began to fade and the Great Depression was making an impact in Europe, Eugene took a gamble. He sold Le Grand Duc and opened a larger nightclub L’Escadrille on the
stylish Rue la Fontaine as well as a gymnasium (or “athletic” club).
With the increasing threat of war, Bullard joined the French counter-espionage network and kept an eye on clients who were suspected of being pro-Nazi fifth columnists. When Hitler’s troops marched into Paris in 1940, he was forced to close both his businesses.
In May that year, he volunteered to take up arms again and served with the 51st Infantry Regiment at Orléans. Badly wounded by the explosion of an artillery shell, he escaped to neutral Spain. From there he traveled to Portugal and on July 12, 1940, boarded the SS Manhattan in Lisbon with many other passengers fleeing Europe to return to the United States. His daughters joined him in 1941.
Bullard had difficulties adjusting to severely restricted circumstances. He lived the rest of his life in Spanish Harlem, but spent much time with the French community in Lower Manhattan. Details of his colorful life and wartime heroism as “The Black Swallow of Death” were unknown. The man who once was close to Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong and others, worked as a perfume salesman and then as a security guard. His final job was that of an elevator-operator at the Rockefeller Center.
Fortunately, his beloved France did not ignore him. In 1954 Bullard was one of three men chosen to rekindle the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. Five years later, he was made a Knight (Chevalier) of the Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honour: the Republic’s highest decoration) by General Charles de Gaulle, who called Eugene a “true French hero.”
Eugene died in New York City on October 12th, 1961. His body was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans section of Flushing Cemetery, Queens. Rejected by the US military during his years of service in France, it was not until 1994 that his bravery and pioneering role in aviation history were acknowledged. He was posthumously promoted to Second Lieutenant by the U.S. Air Force, the rank that would have allowed him to fly as a combat pilot for his own country during the war.
Bullard was one of many African-Americans who volunteered to fight in Europe for liberties denied to them at home. When these former soldiers eventually returned to the United States, they carried their experience of equality with them, fueling the budding civil rights movement. A comprehensive record of their involvement in Europe’s battle for democracy has not been written (yet) and is therefore under threat to be forgotten or – in the present political climate – denied. Bullard’s life story is a narrative that should be remembered, shared and celebrated.
Illustrations, from above: Eugene Bullard being beaten by police during the Peekskill Riot in 1949; Eugene Bullard as a young and decorated soldier in the French Army during World War One; First edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926 by Scribner’s (dust jacket by Cleon); Advertisement for Eugene Bullard’s gymnasium in Paris; and Eugene Bullard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, 1954.