WARNER ROBINS, Ga. -- Before the Tuskegee Airmen blazed the trail for black military pilots, there was Columbus, Georgia, native Eugene Bullard.
During World War I, while fighting for France, he became the world's first black fighter pilot. Last week, on what would have been his 124th birthday, hundreds of people honored him at the Museum of Aviation.
A life-sized bronze statue of Bullard was unveiled. Harriett Bullard White, his cousin, became emotional when she saw it.
She was 11 years old when he died and remembers him well. She has been to France many times to visit places related to his service.
"He was, for us, a giant hero," she said. "No one ever heard of him outside of our family, it seemed, but he was our hero."
She was among 22 family members from around the country who came for the ceremony, along with five original Tuskegee Airmen. White said it means a lot to the family.
"This is incredible," she said. "My heart is just so touched from this recognition. He has left a legacy that's incredible for us, as a family, and now to have the state love him and cheer him on and present the statue. ... My happiness and excitement is so big right now."
Bullard was born in Columbus in 1865, but racial tensions led him to run away from home at an early age, according to a history presented at the ceremony. He took odd jobs along the East Coast, then stowed away on a freighter to France. He joined the French Army when World War I broke out and was in some of the worst fighting. He was severely wounded.
After his recovery, he couldn't join the infantry again but was given the chance to be a pilot. He went on to have at least two confirmed kills of enemy aircraft. He was awarded 15 medals. German enemies nicknamed him "The Black Swallow of Death."
He was denied the chance to fly in the U.S. military because of his race. He also fought briefly for France in World War II and returned to the U.S. after he was injured. He died of cancer in New York in 1961. In 1994, President Bill Clinton posthumously made him a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Col. Brian Moore, commander of the 78th Air Base Wing at Robins Air Force Base, said Bullard was a hero in many ways.
"Clearly, Lt. Bullard led an extraordinary life of courage and now we have the honor to memorialize his life and accomplishments," Moore said. "There's no better place for this statue to stand tall and call home."
This article was written by Wayne Crenshaw from The Macon Telegraph and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.