America, land of the free. Not really. Not for persons of color.
Strange that a Civil War, a Civil Rights Movement, and a black President have failed. Failed after 150 plus years to bring the United States to accepting and treating all persons equally.
This article highlights two individuals and one situation. All three from different time periods. All three telling the same story. Equality yet a distant hope, a distant dream.
His name Eugene Bullard. Better known as Gene.
He was born in 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. The grandson of a slave. His father a Haitian, his mother a Creek Indian. He was fortunate to have received formal schooling till age 10. He learned to read and write.
Ten opened his eyes big time to racial discrimination. He saw his father narrowly escape a lynching. He decided America was not the place for him.
Gene stowed away on a ship to Scotland. Eventually ended up in Paris where he settled.
World War I began in 1914. Gene tried to join the French Army. He was refused. Not because of color. Rather because he was a foreigner. He was permitted however to fight with other foreigners for France in the French Foreign Legion.
Trained as a machine gunner, he fought in several major battles. At some point during the war, France permitted foreign troops to transfer to the regular French Army. Gene was assigned to the Metropolitan French Army. Crack troops. The division became known as the Swallows of Death.
Gene was seriously wounded in March 1916 at the Battle of Verdun. Recovered by October, he joined the French Air Force. He was the first black combat pilot in history.
The U.S. was still not in the war. Americans who wanted to fly joined the French Air Force. The group was known as the Lafayette Escadrille. By the time Gene applied, the group was filled.
He took more training.
Another American volunteer group was formed. The Lafayette Flying Corps. Part of the French Air Force, also. Gene joined.
He took part in heavy combat missions.
Racial discrimination had left its mark on him. His life became one opposed to discrimination. Reflecting his feelings, his plane was named Tout Le Sang Qui Est Rouge. All Blood Runs Red.
When the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. Army sought out all Americans flying with the French Air Force to transfer to the U.S. Army Air Force. Gene took and passed the physical. However, he was rejected because of race. Only white pilots were permitted to fly for the U.S.
Gene was a hero to the French people. He was awarded 15 medals. One medal came later in life in 1959 when he was awarded France’s highest honor, the Chevalier of the Legion d’honneur. Another recognition came a few years earlier when he was invited to Paris to rekindle the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.
He remained in Paris after the war. Initially employed as a drummer, he became manager of Le Grand Duc night club. Paris’ most famous night spot at the time. Frequented by friends such as Josephine Baker and Louis Armstrong. He also opened his own night club. L’Escadrille.
World War II began. Following France’s invasion by Germany, Gene joined the French Army. He was seriously wounded. Friends helped him escape to neutral Spain and then to the United States. He spent significant time in New York hospitals for his war wounds from which he never fully recovered.
His French fame did not accompany him to New York. He was a black nobody. Broke. He worked menial jobs. His last as an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.
His night club in Paris was destroyed by the war. However, he was able to obtain some settlement from the French government for it. He used the money to buy an apartment in Harlem. He remained a stranger in his homeland. Spent his days sitting in his Harlem apartment. In obscurity and poverty. All he had were photos from World War I and his decorations which covered the walls.
Gene died in 1961 at the age of 66 of stomach cancer. He was buried in the French Veterans’ War Section of New York’s Flushing Cemetery.
On August 23, 1964, 33 years after his death and 77 years to the day after passing his physical for transfer to the U.S. Army Air Force, Gene was commissioned posthumously a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
World War II brought another person of color to the forefront. Josephine Baker. In reality, during the war she was a spy. A spy for France. A woman whose life was on the line for five years because of her activities.
During that time she was a singer and dancer. The most popular in the world. Known as the Black Pearl, Bronze Venus and Creole Goddess.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, her father deserted her and her mother early on. Josephine was poor. Very poor. She dressed poorly and was always hungry. Her playground was the train yards of the St. Louis Railroad Station. A place where she developed street smarts.
At 8, she worked for a white family as a domestic. She dropped out of school at 13. Homeless, she slept in cardboard shelters, scavenged food from garbage cans.
At 15, she was dancing on street corners for pennies. A producer saw her and brought her to Harlem to work as a show girl.
She began as a chorus girl. The last girl in the line. Her comic ability revealed itself. She became the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville.
In 1925, she went to Paris. Her fame instantaneous. Night clubs the venue. She engaged in erotic dancing initially. Topless and only a stringof artificial bananas around her waist. Later, she took singing lessons. She excelled as a singer also. Became recognized as a grand diva.
She was the most successful American entertainer in France. Ernest Hemingway said she was “…..the most sensational woman anyone ever saw.”
Her close friends were Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso and Christian Dior. They ran together.
She returned to the United States in 1935 and 1936. Starred in the Zigfeld Follies. America did not take to her. They could not accept a black woman in a starring role. She was replaced by Gypsy Rose Lee. Time Magazine described Josephine as a “Negro wench.”
She returned to Paris, married a french Jew and became a French citizen. She renounced her American citizenship with no difficulty.
Her time as a patriot came during World War II. When Germany invaded Poland,
France declared war on Germany. French Military Intelligence immediately recruited Josephine. She frequented embassy balls and parties. Information was easily picked up. She reported back what she heard.
When Germany invaded France, Josephine moved to her chateau in southern France. She housed friends of De Gaulle and escapees from the Germans. She obtained visas for many.
As an entertainer, she was allowed to move freely throughout Europe and North Africa. She also visited neutral Portugal and South America. She picked up information concerning German airfields, harbors and troop concentrations.
The information was returned to French intelligence in invisible ink on her sheet music and on notes pinned to the inside of her underwear. She figured no one would subject her to a strip search.
When North Africa was freed, she remained and entertained British, American and French troops.
In 1949, she returned to Paris. Welcomed with open arms!
She visited the United States again. This time as a ball of fire. She refused to accept segregation in any form.
Josephine had an appearance scheduled at a Miami night club in 1951. The night club practiced segregation re its customers. No blacks. She openly went to war with the nightclub. Loudly. She won. The night club desegregated.
That same year, the NAACP designated Josephine Woman of the Year. One hundred thousand attended her parade in Harlem.
The Stork Club became a problem. The Stork Club also had a policy discouraging black customers. The Stork Club refused to serve her. She took the Stork Club on publicly. She also attacked her supposed friend Walter Winchell for remaining silent when she raised the issue. Winchell retaliated. He rebuked her and called her a Communist.
The publicity killed Josephine. Winchell was a power. Her work visa was terminated, all her engagements cancelled. She returned to France. It was almost 10 years before she was permitted to enter the United States again.
One of the good things to come out of the Stork Club incident involved Grace Kelley. The two did not know each other. Kelley was there the night the club refused to serve Josephine. Kelley walked out with Josephine. Never to return to the Stork Club again.
A close relationship developed from the incident. Josephine and Kelley became excellent friends. In Josephine’s later years when she was near bankruptcy, Kelley allowed her to use two homes she and her husband owned in Monaco.
Las Vegas refused to integrate its shows. No blacks could perform. Josephine went after Vegas. Vegas relented. As a result, Josephine began receiving calls from the Klu Klux Klan.
Another thorn in Josephine’s side was the practice of New York hotels to refuse admission to blacks. During the 1950s trip to New York, she and her husband were refused admission to 36 hotels.
She stood next to Martin Luther King in 1963 in Washington. Right next to him. She spoke. The only woman to speak. She also introduced Rosa Parks. Josephine wore her Free French uniform with the medal of honor of the Legion d’honneur which France had awarded her.
Josephine died broke. Were it not for friends like Grace Kelley, her last days would not have been as caring as they were.
The Civil War did nor solve the black/white problem. During World War I, the problem still existed. Gene Bullard was denied acceptance into the U.S. Army Air Force. Finally World War II, before and after, shows the prejudice that still existed as regards Josephine Baker.
Which brings me to the third and final episode. The Charleston, South Carolina massacre of last week. Where nine blacks were shot to death while Bible reading in church. By a 21 year old young man whose words during the event clearly reflected the tenor that still exists regarding blacks.
Then there are the killings of blacks by police.
Where does it all end? Does it all end? I don’t know. It has been more that 150 years since the Civil War and as a nation we are still mired indiscrimination and prejudice.