Georgia’s WWI Centennial Commission on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, unveiled a statue of Eugene Bullard, a war hero from Columbus and the first African American fighter pilot in the world, at the Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Statue of first African American fighter pilot unveiled in Georgia

Eugene Bullard of Columbus fought for French in World War I

Now 97 and living in Austell, the retired chemist came here Wednesday to help honor a black forefather. A bronze statue of Eugene Bullard, a Georgia native who became the world’s first African American fighter pilot, was unveiled at this military installation before a large crowd of descendants, U.S. troops, French officials and others. It happened on what would have been Bullard’s 125th birthday.

In the early 20th century, Bullard ran away from his Columbus home after his father was nearly lynched there, joining a band of gypsies and then stowing away on a ship for Europe. He fought the Germans for the French Foreign Legion during World War I before joining France’s air service. The segregated U.S. military would not accept him as a pilot because he was black, though Bullard was posthumously commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force in 1994.

October 9, 2019 - Robins AFB - Hillard Pouncy, from Austell, an original Tuskegee Airman, attended the dedication. Georgia's WWI Centennial Commission unveiled a statue of Eugene Bullard, a war hero from Columbus and the first black military pilot in the world, at Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

“You must remember that, years ago, most people were pretty sure that, if you had black skin, you were probably pretty stupid — you probably couldn’t fly a sophisticated machine like an airplane. This guy proved you can,” Pouncy said moments before the ceremony began. “The Civil Rights Movement really started when the Army started letting black guys fly. They proved to the world they are just as smart or just as dumb as anybody else.”

Robins AFB - Harriett Bullard White, a descendent of Eugene Bullard, gets a hug from Lt. Col. Christopher Banks, one of the project officers, after the unveiling. Georgia's WWI Centennial Commission unveiled a statue of Eugene Bullard, a war hero from Columbus and the first black military pilot in the world, Oct. 9, 2019, at Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Georgia’s WWI Centennial Commission raised private donations for the monument, placing it just outside the Museum of Aviation, where Bullard is honored in the Aviation Hall of Fame. The statue depicts Bullard in his military uniform. His arms are crossed. And he is looking skyward.

“To have the courage at age 19 to join the fabled French Foreign Legion and volunteer to fly at a time when aviation was far more dangerous and unproven, and frankly when pilots had an exceptionally short service life, this is nothing short of heroic,” said Col. Brian Moore, commander of 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base.

More: Statue of first African American fighter pilot to debut in Georgia

Vincent Hommeril, France’s consulate general in Atlanta, highlighted that Bullard was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre for his heroism at the Battle of Verdun and was named a knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.

“May this statue honor his accomplishments and remain as a living symbol of French-American friendship for years to come,” Hommeril said.

Moments later, Hommeril joined French and U.S. military officials in placing wreaths beside Bullard’s statue.

Terrence Chester of Carrollton was among nearly two dozen Bullard family descendants who watched as the statue was revealed. To him, it captures Bullard’s “pride” and “warrior spirit.”

“I’m so proud right now just to be a part of this experience and to witness recognition that is long overdue,” he said as he awaited his turn to take photos of the monument. “Words cannot really express my emotions.”

Robins AFB - Thomas Bristow, from Atlanta, one of the original Tuskegee Airman, is recognized during the dedication ceremony. Georgia's WWI Centennial Commission unveiled a statue of Eugene Bullard, a war hero from Columbus and the first black military pilot in the world, Oct. 9, 2019, at Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/robert.andres@ajc.com

Duluth resident Thomas Bristow Sr., 90, is also an original Tuskegee Airmen. He joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 17, training as an aircraft sheet metal and fuel cell specialist. He attended Wednesday’s ceremony with Pouncy.

“There are a lot of things that we have done to participate that are just coming to the top now,” the retired pastor said. “It is a great honor.”

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