Watching the recent resurgence of white supremacism in America, I have come to think that much of what I was taught about our history is wrong. For example, Reconstruction did not collapse because of its inherent faults, as my high school teachers said. Rather, it was destroyed by more than a decade of white terrorist attacks on black sheriffs, mayors, teachers and ministers across the South. Most of all, it ended because of widespread, unpunished violence against thousands of black Americans to discourage them from voting.
An example closer to military history is that of the first African-American fighter pilot. He was not a member of the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, as most people assume, but a Georgian named Eugene Bullard who flew for the French decades earlier, during World War I. Bullard’s absorbing story, which reads like a picaresque novel, is related in ALL BLOOD RUNS RED: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard — Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy (Hanover Square, $27.99), by Phil Keith and Tom Clavin, each the author of several books of history.
Born into the oppressive Jim Crow world of Columbus, Ga., in 1895, Bullard as a boy heard that the black man was treated more fairly in France, and developed a determination to move there. After his laborer father was nearly lynched, the young man fled, and eventually stowed away on a freighter that deposited him in Scotland. He made his way to Liverpool, where he became a boxer. That occupation got him to Paris, where he happily took up residence at 18. A few months later, when World War I began, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. He fought at the Somme and Verdun, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Wounded so severely that he was deemed unable to return to the trenches, he transferred to a French aviation unit. He soon was the first black American fighter pilot.
After the war he became a nightclub owner in Paris — a great business for someone who was both charming and pugnacious. Among his employees was Langston Hughes. One of his performers was Dooley Wilson, who would go on to sing “As Time Goes By” in “Casablanca.” His patrons included Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII, most famous for his abdication in 1936). Before World War II broke out, German intelligence officers frequented Bullard’s club, enabling him to eavesdrop and pass on what he heard to French counterintelligence officers.