Paul Robeson, Ed Murrow and The Lucky Number Seven

6 Nov

When the American singer and actor Paul Robeson took to the makeshift stage on 4th September 1949 a group of men surrounded the singer to prevent him from being shot by a sniper.

This was to be Robeson’s fourth concert in support of The Civil Rights Congress and once again it was to be held near a small town known as Peekskill situated in Westchester County, New York.

The precise venue for this concert was to be the Old Hollow Brook Golf Course situated at Cortlandt Manor, just outside Peekskill.

Originally, the concert had been scheduled for August 27th but had had to be delayed due to protests from locals who were steadfast in their opposition to Robeson and his political views.

By 1949, Robeson had gone from being one of America’s best paid entertainers, to someone who had been labelled in the public mind as a communist, a left wing agitator and anti-American sympathiser whose views were at odds with the best interests of the American people.

This view was enforced and enhanced by certain elements of the American press, including The Associated Press, who had misreported statements made by Robeson on a previous visit to Paris, with the result that Robeson found his concerts throughout America cancelled and his political views vilified.

In subsequent years, following the rise to prominence of Senator Joe McCarthy and his commission, he would have his passport confiscated, his movements restricted, his performances curtailed and his personal wellbeing repeatedly threatened in the land of the free.

The son of a slave who had become a minister, Paul Robeson was a very bright and athletic individual who would face prejudice throughout his life. He had won a scholarship to Rutgers University where he excelled both academically and in the world of sports. However, to gain a place on the University Football Team he had to overcome significant initial prejudice from team mates who were overly physical with him because he was the only black player on the team.

Eventually, because of his sheer strength, physique, determination and skill, Robeson would command a place as an “end” in the University football team and would go on to great success winning first team All American selection in his junior and senior years. Some would muse that at the time he was the greatest Collegiate “end” to have played the game.

By the time of the McCarthy inquisitions however, the record books would show no mention of Paul Robeson at all with the All American teams for those years showing only ten players rather than eleven. To the eternal shame of the university, Rutgers University football records showed his name having been expunged altogether.

In terms of American College Football – Paul Robeson had ceased to exist, and in fact would appear to have never existed at all.

Beyond the football field Robeson had excelled at College and was proclaimed valedictorian by his class and gained numerous commendations for his academic, debating, acting and singing talents.

After college, he played some NFL football for the Milwaukee Badgers and entered the New York school of Law in the fall of 1919. However he was uncomfortable there and transferred to the University of Columbia Law School from which he graduated with the intention of following a legal career.

He was working in New York law offices whilst pursuing a singing career at the same time initially. However, he chose to give up the law when some white clients made it plain that they would never agree to be represented in court by a “negro”. The final straw was to come when Robeson in the course of his job asked a stenographer to take a deposition. Her reply — “I won’t take dictation from a nigger” — led Robeson to pursue another career entirely.

So it came to pass that by 1949 Robeson was a worldwide star in the world of entertainment having gained success on the stages of New York, London and elsewhere with his deep bass voice. He had gained particular fame for his performances in Showboat in the movies and on the stage, and he had become the first black man to play Othello in London and New York.

However, his commitment to civil rights and his stance against the colonisation of Africa, the fascists in the Spanish Civil War and his campaigns for peace especially with Russia, overshadowed his entertainment value and even his support for American troops during World War two.

20,000 or so people turned up to see and hear him at the Peekskill concert, but that 20,000 had to be safeguarded by a protective ring of volunteer guards drawn from trade unions and civil rights activists who formed a human chain all the way around the concert venue.

Outside that venue stood some 900 state troopers who were supposedly deployed to prevent Robeson and the concert goers from being attacked by a mob of angry local residents, many of whom were just kids, some Ku Klux Klan members, but mostly members of organisations such as The Veterans of Foreign Wars and different chapters of the American Legion.

These groups had supposedly come to protest at Robeson and his “left wing” friends, and in preparation for their protest the Police had allowed them to collect, and indeed “truck in”, piles of stones and bricks to make their point.

Effigies of Paul Robeson were hung or burned, and those attending the concert were berated with insults including “Niggers” “Commies” “ Jews” and other inflammatory statements.

There was a real fear of Robeson being assassinated and one sniper was discovered in the woods surrounding the concert venue.

As it happened, the concert itself passed without incident, however it was deemed appropriate that Robeson’s departure from the venue be disguised.

At the end, he was seen being placed in a car, but in actual fact he left that car to go into another only to leave the second car behind in order to be secretly smuggled into an unmarked van in which he made his escape from the venue.

The rest of the concert goers were not so lucky.

Many cars had been destroyed when they turned up for the previous concert on August 27th. Drivers found their vehicles up turned or pushed over cliffs by angry locals.

Now, as they left the concert of 4th September, each and every vehicle was met with a hail of missiles thrown by the protestors. Car windows were broken, accidents caused and people were injured.

Concert goers had to run an organised gauntlet lasting roughly 4 miles where piles of stones and bricks had been stockpiled every few hundred yards for the protestors to use as missiles. While this abuse was going on, Law enforcement officers and state troopers merely stood and watched with no attempt to stop the violence.

A full blown riot ensued with many people being injured. Many concert goers, particularly black concert goers, were attacked.

News footage exists of one black man being knocked to the ground and being badly beaten by not only so called protestors, but also by local law enforcement officers and state troopers. The beating of this man was later described as “savage.”

At first, the state authorities and local Governor denied that this beating, and even the whole riot, had ever happened, but eventually had to accept that their version of events had been fabricated. Even then, the cause of the riot was laid fairly and squarely at the feet of Paul Robeson and his “commie” sympathisers.

As a consequence, Robeson was denounced on the floor of the house with one Representative stating that the American people were “not in sympathy with that Nigger Communist and that bunch of Reds who went up there.”

Democratic Representative Edward E. Cox of Georgia denounced Robeson on the House floor as a “Communist agent provocateur.”

Despite sections of the community and civil rights activists calling for an enquiry into the Peekskill riots, no further action was taken and no prosecutions ever followed. The perpetrators of the beating handed out to the black concert goer on camera were neither investigated nor charged.

The protestors were portrayed in Newsreels as war veterans, patriots and the supporters of a free democracy who had every right to stand and go to any lengths to prevent the influence of the “red element” being spread throughout America.

Paul Robeson’s records were withdrawn from sale in America, his concerts cancelled and his movies withdrawn. No Paul Robeson film would be shown on American television until the late 1970’s!

Robeson was invited to sing at Civil Rights functions and in black communities but in “white” McCarthyist America he was seen as a demon.

His wife eventually appeared before Senator McCarthy’s committee and asked about her husband’s refusal to condemn communism, Russia and those organisations which protested against the colonisation of Africa. The committee session was caught on film and it shows the junior senator from Wisconsin at his bullying worst.

However, in due course McCarthy would be destroyed by his own bigotry, prejudices and excesses.

The widely admired CBS journalist Edward R Murrow would play a pivotal role in bringing about the downfall of McCarthy.

On 20th October 1953 – 4 years after the Peekskill riots – Murrow would make a famous live broadcast titled “The Case Against Lt. Milo Radulovich, AO589839.”

Radulovich had been a reserve Air Force weather officer, in Dexter, Michigan, but was dismissed from service because he was considered a “security risk.” Senator McCarthy, as head of the Senate Operations Committee, and its subcommittee on investigations, had stirred up a massive search for such “traitors,” in the intervening four years, and these traitors had to be identified not only by relations with communists, but what they read, and whom they associated with.

The evidence against Radulovich was the fact that his father, an immigrant who read newspapers from his native Serbia, and his sister, who had attended a civil rights rally for Paul Robeson, were considered “communist sympathizers.” When Radulovich refused to dissociate himself from his family and their activities, he was dismissed from the Air Force Service.

Radulovich subsequently challenged the decision in court but failed to change the decision.

Murrow took up the story, interviewed Radulovich and demonstrated how ridiculous the decision was on live television. At the same time, he damned and condemned McCarthy.

The result was that Radulovich was reinstated into the air force within a month.

Television had succeeded where the courts had failed.

Murrow now knew that McCarthy would seek to attack him and to destroy his reputation. He was told that McCarthy was investigating Murrow and his communist sympathies.

In the full knowledge of what had happened to Robeson and his career, Ed Murrow and his producer, Fred Friendly, persuaded CBS to allow Murrow to launch an extraordinary attack on McCarthy and to question the fundamentalist reactions and beliefs that had led to, amongst other things, the Peekskill Riots and the damning of Paul Robeson.

At the time, Murrow’s broadcast and stance was seen as highly dangerous both to the network and to Murrow himself.

On March 29, 1954 Murrow made another broadcast entitled “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy,” featuring a series of film clips of the Senator himself.

Using the film clips and the Senator’s own words, Murrow exposed and clearly demonstrated the lies, absurdities and inconsistencies behind what McCarthy had been saying, preaching and doing supposedly in the name of the American people. The exposure of McCarthy’s baiting of witnesses, and the type of sustained bullying faced by Paul Robeson’s wife, was shown to the nation and provided devastating evidence of McCarthy’s lack of credibility.

Murrow ended the broadcast with this devastating conclusion:

“No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that Congressional committees are useful. It is necessary to investigate before legislating, but the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly. His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”

He went on:

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Murrow then ended the broadcast – and indeed the career of the junior senator from Wisconsin with his familiar sign off.

“ Good Night – and Good Luck”.

That signature sign off – “ Good night and Good Luck” – stemmed from Murrow’s years as a war correspondent in London. At the height of the blitz it was a reasonably common saying when saying goodbye to someone on any given evening. No one knew in those fearful days if they would be living in the morning or if they were ever going to see the person they were saying goodbye to again.

And so it came to pass that each and every broadcast Murrow would make from London during the war would start with “ This – is London” and would end with “ Good Night – and Good Luck”.

Within 5 short years of the McCarthy broadcast, Ed Murrow found himself waging his own war on not only his employers at CBS but on all the other news channels and networks in America.

He had watched the new idiom of television start to dumb down and viewed the advance of shows such as The $64,000 Question with horror.

He argued that television was a means of educating the nation and that the networks were selling the viewing public out by accepting the highest dollar for sponsored shows such as quizzes and the like at the expense of proper news reporting and educational documentaries.

He also argued that the sponsor’s dollar would eventually dictate the quality of the news and education provided by the television and predicted that news and proper reporting would soon become a thing of the past.

On October 15, 1958, in a speech before the Radio and Television News Directors Association in Chicago, Murrow blasted TV’s emphasis on entertainment and commercialism at the expense of public interest in what became known as his “wires and lights” speech.

Amongst other things that night, when addressing the black ties and the ball gown types, Ed Murrow said the following:

“Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians left about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in colour, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 p.m., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, AND PAY LATER.

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive. And I mean the word survive, quite literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then perhaps, some young and courageous soul with a small budget might do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done–and are still doing–to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizen from anything that is unpleasant.”

He then went on:

“To a very considerable extent, the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason our system differs from the British and the French, and also from the Russian and the Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. And our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.”

Finally, talking of television, Murrow ends:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Thank you for your patience.

Good Night – and Good Luck”.

Three months before that speech, The United States Supreme Court made a ruling in the case of Kent v Dulles which set out the right of free travel to any American citizen.

It was a case that surrounded the restriction placed on Rockwell Kent being allowed to travel due to his having supposed “Communist Sympathies”. By a majority, the Supreme Court ruled that such a restriction was unconstitutional and as a result, Paul Robeson had his passport returned to him.

By 1959 he had become the first black singer to sing at St Paul’s cathedral and was appearing as Othello at Stratford on Avon.

He later toured the world and continued to work and speak out politically but he would never regain the status, fame and fortune that he enjoyed before Peekskill.

Eventually, ill health would take its toll on that deep voice and he lived out his last 13 years in seclusion. He was unable to attend many benefits, concerts and celebrations given in his honour at venues and in cities which had shunned him years earlier.

He was unable to attend a celebration of his 75th birthday at Carnegie Hall in 1973, however he did send a message: “Though I have not been able to be active for several years, I want you to know that I am the same Paul, dedicated as ever to the worldwide cause of humanity for freedom, peace and brotherhood.”

On January 23, 1976, following complications of a stroke, Robeson died at the age of 77 at his sister’s house in Philadelphia.

CBS and all the other news channels hailed him as a great American.

Ed Murrow’s lights and wires in a box speech did not immediately bring about the end of his career, but the writing was on the wall as far as his days with CBS were concerned.

Old friendships were now strained relationships. Where he had once been a director of the corporation his stance on news reporting and television’s use in general were at extreme odds with those who controlled the corporation and broadcasting as a whole.

He was eventually appointed head of the United States Information Agency by President Kennedy and so was in charge of broadcasting the official views of the Government to the public of other nations.

It was to be a position he would hold until ill health forced him to retire in 1964.

However, it was not investigative reporting which was his forte.

Old friends and foes at CBS did ask him to come back to the network after he retired from Government but he declined.

He had been the first man to publicly broadcast on the health dangers of smoking and the then suspected link between cigarettes and cancer, yet he himself smoked more than 60 camel cigarettes each day. That broadcast angered the tobacco industry who were major television sponsors.

He had shone the light on the shocking plight of farm workers and immigrant workers in the United States, had questioned the US policy on Israel and Palestine, and had made many other reports which were designed to tell a story which would shake the communal American psyche.

He questioned and challenged established thinking and doctrine throughout his entire broadcasting career and always sought to present the facts without fear or favour as he believed that ordinary people were better off knowing the facts and could deal with those facts even if they were unpopular or made the same public uncomfortable with Government or themselves.

On April 27, 1965, two days after his 57th birthday, Ed Murrow said “Good Night – and Good luck” for the very last time.

CBS carried a memorial program and in the intervening years Murrow’s reputation as a journalist and a broadcast visionary has increasingly grown with the lights in a box speech becoming a thing of legend in broadcasting and cultural circles.

One colleague said of him: “He was a shooting star; and we will live in his afterglow for a very long time.”

However, the lessons to be learned from the careers of Ed Murrow, Paul Robeson and the events at Peekskill in 1949 do not end there.

There is no doubt that both Murrow and Robeson were remarkable and brave men.

However, I believe this story has someone in its midst who puts both of them in a very respectable shade – but shade none the less.

To my knowledge there is no evidence to suggest that Paul Robeson ever met the “Negro” who was beaten by the state troopers, police and protestors at the end of his concert in upstate New York. Years later, the graphic and detailed photographs of that beating would find their way into a biography of the singer written by his granddaughter Susan Robeson.

The book was entitled: The Whole World in His Hands: a Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson.

Nor can I find any evidence that Ed Murrow or anyone else at CBS, the main news network of the time, ever sought out the victim of the assault or reported on his wellbeing or history.

Had Murrow or his colleagues followed the story, as they did in the case of Milo Radulovich, they would have uncovered the most remarkable of stories which would have inspired, taught, illuminated and even shocked the American public – especially those who were responsible for the beating or who chose to throw stones on a September afternoon in 1949 just outside Peekskill New York.

The man concerned was called Eugene James Bullard and he was born in Columbus, Georgia on 9th October in either 1894 or 1895 depending on which account of his life you choose to believe.

His parents were William Octavius Bullard, whose family had originally been slaves on the French Islands of Martinique or Haiti and Josephine “Yokalee” Thomas, a Creek Indian.

The couple had a total of ten children of whom Eugene would be the seventh child with his father always believing that the boy would be “Lucky number seven.”

William Bullard was known locally as “Big Ox”. He was a large powerful man who was well educated and who could speak fluent French. He would regale his children with tales of France and his French ancestry, and would spell out to them that in France a man was not judged by his race or colour as was the practice in the Southern states of the USA. Further, Big Ox preached about the French belief in liberté, égalité, and fraternité – and to a young boy from the South his stories suggested that France was some kind of heaven.

Eugene was a student at Twenty-eighth Street School in Columbus between 1901 and 1906 and it was there he learned to read and write.

His mother died when he was only a young boy and so he was raised by The Big Ox and his siblings.

However, during that time Eugene  came to realise that he would always be the victim of prejudice in America because of the colour of his skin. He would witness his father be victimised and bullied by White bosses and on more than one occasion he and his family would have to hide from Klan members.

One of his brothers was murdered by Ku Klux Klan members, and when his father retaliated against a White man who had laid hands on him, there was an attempt to lynch his father which was only stopped when an influential white man intervened.

It was against this background that Eugene James Bullard took the reluctant decision to run away and leave Georgia for good in 1906 when he was just 11 or 12 years old.

That decision would mark the start of the most remarkable of journeys.

Eugene left home with only his pet goat which he sold in return for some money which he used to set him off on his travels.

Almost immediately he found himself in the company of a family of gypsies who were originally from England. The gypsies took him in, fed him, housed him and taught him to ride and tend for horses. For the next two years he would ride as a jockey winning several races throughout the State of Georgia.

However, he was not content to live the gypsy life on a personal basis and eventually left the camp and once again set off across America on foot taking odd jobs here and there.

This was a particularly dangerous pastime for a 14 year old black boy who was really no more than a child. Eventually he sneaked on board a railroad wagon which took him to Newport Virginia where once again he managed to obtain some employment on a piecemeal basis.

At the age of 16, Eugene found himself in Norfolk Virginia where he was working at the docks helping to load a German cargo ship called the Marta Russ. He had no idea where the ship was headed but he took the view that wherever it was going it was likely to offer a young black boy a better standard of life than the Southern States of the USA.

Sure, he could have travelled north to some of the big cities like Philadelphia or Detroit, but filled with his father’s stories of France, Eugene wanted to leave America altogether in search of a better life.

Accordingly, he slipped on board the Marta Russ and decided to stowaway to goodness only knew where.

He remained hidden on the boat for three days before eventually running out of food and water at which time he presented himself to an astonished captain by the name of Westphal. The Captain at first joked about throwing him overboard before sending him off to work in both the engine room and the cook house.

During a three week voyage, Eugene mixed with the crew and learned to speak some rudimentary German, realising for the first time that he had a natural aptitude for languages.

The boat and its cargo were bound for Sweden but the captain was wary of taking the young black man with him to Sweden where he thought that some tough questions would be asked about his unexpected and unexplainable young crew member.

However, the boat was due to make one stop before reaching Sweden and it was decided that Eugene would disembark there and head on out into the world. That stop was destined to be made at Aberdeen in Scotland.

When the Marta Russ docked in Northern Scotland, the German captain helped Eugene off the boat and gave him the princely sum of £5 to help him on his way.

Whether acting on advice or instinct, Eugene spent only one night in the city before travelling south by passenger train to Britain’s second largest city – Glasgow — where he arrived in the spring of 1912.

A Black sixteen year old American boy stood out like a sore thumb in Glasgow in 1912, however it was here that Eugene James Bullard would later recall that he felt truly free for the first time in his life. He would stay in the city for some 5 months, and while he would hear the odd comment about his colour or his accent, in his eyes the comments were more made in fun than out of any malice or genuine prejudice.

The atmosphere in Glasgow was completely different to the constant fear and threat of violence that existed in Georgia or elsewhere in the Southern United States.

Once again he made some friends who helped him get cheap but clean accommodation and he gained work as a lookout for local bookmakers, a profession which was illegal at the time.

It was in Glasgow that he also came across street entertainers for the first time and although he felt that some of the forms of entertainment were a bit like begging, which he refused to do, he felt a thrill for the very idea of entertainment.

After 5 months in Glasgow, he again boarded the train this time headed for Liverpool where he was told he would be able to possibly get himself a job that might take him to continental Europe.

In Liverpool, he earned money in some street theatre jobs most notably being the guy who was locked in the stocks who had custard pies thrown at him. However, he also started to attend a local gym and learned to box.

His boxing skills were quite good and the time at the gym resulted in his physique filing out and his frame becoming more like that of a man than a runaway teenager.

In time he started to box with some quite good results that brought him to the attention of a trainer who in due course persuaded him to move to London.

At the time, London had a whole host of expatriate American boxers including the heavyweight champion of the world – Jack Johnson. Amongst those he met in London was someone he came to look upon as a father figure and mentor for a couple of years – the world champion welterweight contender called Aaron Lister Brown otherwise known as “The Dixie Kid”.

Brown became Eugene’s manager and helped him with his boxing skills. Yet at the same time, Eugene also earned some money with a slapstick vaudeville and dance act working with an American female singer and dancer called Belle Davis whose “troop” was known as Freedman’s Pickaninnies – a pickaninny being a sort of comedic dancer.

Life in London was good for Eugene – or Gene as he was referred to – but having come all this way he wanted to see France and to determine whether or not it matched up to the tales told by his father.

On 28th November 1913, both The Dixie kid and Eugene James Bullard took part in a boxing bill in Paris.

Glasgow and Liverpool had been good; London had been fabulous to Gene, but as soon as he set foot in Paris he knew he was spiritually “home” and it soon became clear that he wanted to live there and would not return to England permanently.

He toured Europe with the Pickaninnies for the next few months but was permanently settled in Paris by early 1914.

Despite all that had happened to him and the thousands of miles he had journeyed he was still only 18 years old at most.

However, the adventures of Eugene James Bullard (though he had now changed his name to Eugene Jacques Bullard) were only just beginning.

He had many friends among the boxing fraternity in Paris and quickly got work acting as an interpreter and as a dancer.

However, in August 1914 War came and France found itself at War with Germany. Many of the Americans in Paris left continental Europe and headed back to Britain or elsewhere. Eugene Jacques Bullard chose to stay and on October 9th, his nineteenth birthday but declaring that he was twenty years old, he responded to the calls of the French Government by presenting himself at the recruiting office of the French Foreign Legion in the Boulevard  des Invalides.

Over the next two years, Eugene would be at the forefront of some of the worst battles of the First World War where the legionnaires wold suffer huge casualties. Over 32,000 foreign nationals had joined the French Foreign Legion including some 600 Americans only a handful of whom were black.

The legion lost tens of thousands of troops in the trenches and within 18 months or so, three legion units were merged into one, such was the number of casualties.

Eugene was a machine gunner and spent months in the trenches watching many colleagues die. He himself had been injured but counted himself lucky enough to be alive.

By early 1916 he was part of the 170th infantry division which had barely survived horrific fighting at Verdun which was seen as hugely important by both the Germans and the French. Eugene and his colleagues were literally ordered to die rather than surrender the city and they came under massive shell fire for a continuous period of two weeks.

On March 2nd Eugene was badly injured in an explosion which was sufficiently violent that it blew out all but four of his teeth. He had spent days on end firing his machine gun at advancing German troops and on other occasions he had crawled out into no man’s land to try and rescue injured comrades who were calling out for help.

On March 5th, in the town of Fleury a shell attack blew him into a dugout and opened up severe wounds in his leg and resulted in shrapnel lodging in his back. At the time, just three days after his previous injury, he had exposed himself to the enemy and was attempting to deliver a communique further along the line.

Fortunately, he was picked up by the red cross and taken by ambulance away from the battle area and later loaded onto a train.

Over 300,000 men died in the battle for Verdun and it was not until June that the French were confident of holding the city. The rally cry of “ Ils ne passerant pas” became legendary and the leader of the troops, Marshall Petain became a national hero.

The train carrying Eugene Bullard drove through France for three nights only stopping so that the dead could be taken off the train and some of the wounded could be treated. Apparently at one point Eugene Bullard was examined and declared dead such were his wounds. However, when he was being unloaded from the train he was discovered to be alive but barely so.

He was hospitalised in Lyon but the injuries to his leg and back were such that it was clear that his war was over and upon his eventual recovery which included massive dental work to replace his teeth, he was told that he was to be discharged and that his war was over.

However, Eugene Jacques Bullard refused to accept his discharge as he had another plan.

By this time, his father, The Big Ox, had somehow gotten to know of his son’s whereabouts and his involvement in the war in Europe. He asked the American Government to have him repatriated back to the USA pointing out that he was only 19 and according to American law too young to fight.

However, the American Government could do nothing about what went on in France and so The Big Ox had to trust in his belief in his “Lucky number Seven”.

Against all medical advice and all hitherto known precedent, Eugene Bullard, having recovered as best he could from his injuries, volunteered on October 2nd 1916 to join the French Military Air Service as a gunner.

He had bet other soldiers that he could become a pilot and that he could fly a plane despite having a badly damaged leg and back. By 5th May 1917 he had received his pilot’s licence (No 6950) from Aero Club De-France.

By June 28, 1917 Bullard was promoted to the rank of corporal and on August 27, 1917 he was assigned to the Escadrille N.93 based at Beauzée-sur-Aire south of Verdun, where he stayed till September 13. The squadron was equipped with Nieuport and Spad aircraft that bore a flying duck as its squadron insignia. Bullard’s service record also includes the aero squadron N.85 (Escadrille SPA 85), September 13, 1917 – November 11, 1917, which had a bull insignia. He took part in about twenty combat missions, often flying with his pet monkey in the cockpit, and he has been credited with shooting down one or two German aircraft although some sources differ on this.

In those days, Pilots could decorate their own aircraft and on his, Bullard wrote the legend “ All blood runs red” – a clear reference and message saying that the black man was no different to his white colleague or adversary.

And so it came to pass that Eugene Jacques Bullard was amongst the very first fighter pilots as at the time the Aeroplane was only twenty years old.

However, here is the thing.

When the United States eventually entered the war, the United States Army Air Service convened a medical board to recruit all Americans serving in the Lafayette Flying Corps (the squadron name for Americans flying for France) or the Escadrilles into the Air Service of the American Expeditionary Forces. Bullard went through the medical examination, passed all the tests, but was never admitted to the American air force because ……… he was Black!

After all that he had been through, his own country, from which he had escaped all those years before discriminated against him because of skin colour at the very first opportunity.

Accordingly, Bullard continued to fly for France.

Bullard would later get into a fight with a French officer and as a result he was drummed out of the French air force and reassigned back to the 170th infantry until the end of the war being discharged on October 24th 1919.

Once the war was over, there was no prospect of Eugene Bullard heading back to the United States. Paris was his home, and it was in Paris that he intended to stay.

He returned to Paris and renewed old acquaintances from before the war. However, by this time he was no longer just another American in Paris. He was Eugene Jaques Bullard, an honorary French citizen having fought for the country in the war and who had been decorated for bravery.

The runaway was now a bit of a celebrity.

However, no matter what level of celebrity he enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the war, it was to be nothing in comparison to the lifestyle and level of local fame he would enjoy for the next fifteen to twenty years.

Somewhere along the line Eugene Bullard persuaded a friend to teach him how to play the drums. He became more than proficient as a jazz drummer and entered the world of Parisian nightclubs and jazz clubs as a recognised musician.

In 1923 he married a countess, Marcelle Straumann, by which time he was the resident drummer and manager of Le Grand Duc club in Montmartre, and after a while he became the owner of the club.

By 1924, Paris was a real haven for avant-garde jazz, dance and the decadent lifestyle – ironically the only city which had a similar scene was Berlin.

At Le Grand Duc, many a celebrity could be found mixing with locals and former army and air force officers. In that year, Bullard employed an American saloon singer from Chicago with flame red hair who was the daughter of an Irishman and a black woman. The singer had been christened Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith but because of her unusual parental mix and her flame red hair was simply referred to as “ Bricktop” and she was to become a Parisian fixture and legend.

It is said that Bricktop taught Josephine Baker to Charleston in Le Grand Duc, and that one night F Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway engaged in a wild fist fight outside the club over her affections.

Bullard also owned a gymnasium where he had the boxing fraternity train and eventually he would own the L’Espadrille restaurant.

At Le Grand Duc,  the list of clients and performers read like a who’s who of the entertainment and literary world.

As well as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, TS Eliot and other writers would regularly come in as would The Duke and Duchess of Kent. Bricktop would eventually open her own legendary club up the road but Le Grand Duc was also home to Josephine Baker, Gloria Swanson, Helle Nice and various other artistes.

Louis Armstrong played trumpet there and a certain Dooley Wilson had stints as the pianist in residence before finding greater fame as Sam in Casablanca. The American playwright and novelist Langston Hughes worked as a bus boy in the club serving celebrities, war veterans, politicians and the like.

Regrettably, Bullard and his wife separated in 1935. Eugene retained custody of his two daughters by the marriage, a son having died in infancy, and so he mixed the life of a celebrity club owner and father.

By the late 1930’s however there was once again a clear threat from Germany as Hitler expanded his ambitions throughout Europe.

Bullard’s club was frequented by many German officials and he began to gather information for the French and the British intelligence services by eavesdropping on conversations which the German officers thought he could not understand.

Eventually he was warned by a friendly German officer that when the war came he should take his daughters and leave Paris as undoubtedly things would not be good for him if the German army marched on Paris.

Even before the war started, some in France were watching Bullard and saw that he seemed friendly with high ranking German officials. One night, as he was locking up the club, a bag was suddenly placed over his head and he was kidnapped. His captors proved to be the French resistance movement who feared that the official French authorities would not stand up to Hitler.

Bullard was able to convince them that he was not a Nazi sympathiser and thereafter agreed to pass any intelligence back to the resistance.

In essence he became a sort of spy for a number of months with his intelligence being passed to the resistance and British Intelligence.

Eventually, however, war came and as predicted the German army rolled swiftly over France with devastating results. Prior to the fall of Paris, Bullard decided to heed the advice he had been given and took his daughters to safety and got out of town in May 1940.

However, just as he had at the First World War, he volunteered to fight for France even though he was in his mid-forties. Bullard made his way to the city of Orleans by bicycle and there he met up with his former commander from the Battle of Verdun. As a volunteer he joined the 51st  infantry division and fought alongside the regular army in an attempt to defend the city. In late May he was once again severely wounded in battle suffering severe injuries to his back with the prognosis being that he would never walk again.

There was no way he could continue serving in the war effort and he was smuggled into neutral Spain in late July of the same year. Eventually his daughters were smuggled out of the country by friends and from Lisbon Bullard returned to the United States landing in New York.

It would be the first time he had returned to the country of his birth in 35 years.

Upon arrival in New York, Bullard was immediately taken to hospital and he remained under medical care for several weeks. Although he regained the use of his legs he never fully recovered from his wounds.

Moreover, he found the fame and freedom of association he enjoyed in France had not followed him to the United States and one again he found himself the victim of prejudice and suffered hardship as a result of the colour of his skin.

He worked as a perfume salesman, a security guard, and occasionally as an interpreter for Louis Armstrong, but his back injury severely restricted him and he more or less faded into the background and out of the limelight in the United States where his war record was not only not widely known or recognised but was initially at least swept under the carpet by those in officialdom. He attempted to regain his nightclub in Paris some years later, but his property had been destroyed during the war and initially at least he failed to receive any kind of financial settlement from the French government and so he was virtually forced to return to New York where he would enjoy, if that is the right word, a very different lifestyle to that he had built for himself in Paris.

However, he was an ardent supporter of civil rights, especially black civil rights, and it was because of those beliefs that he travelled to Peekskill New York in September 1949 to hear Paul Robson speak and sing in support of the Civil Rights Congress. It was because of those beliefs that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that September day when “Veterans” and patriotic defenders of democracy and free speech from chapters of the American Legion shouted abuse at him and others, eventually knocking him to the ground, beating him fiercely along with uniformed law enforcement officers who were apparently doing their duty.

Eventually, the filmed beating of Eugene Jacques Bullard would feature clearly but heavily in the 1970s documentary The Tallest Tree in Our Forest and the Oscar winning documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist – both of which the late Edward R Murrow would have been proud.

However, in 1949 neither America itself nor the television networks had shown any interest in Bullard.

Had they done so, then maybe those who attacked him as a “commie” a  “Nigger” or whatever would have recognised him and realised that in France he was by that time recognised as a National Hero.

I wonder how they would have felt had they known that the man on the ground was the holder of amongst other things the Médaille Militaire, The Croix de Guerre, The Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), The Wounded Insignia, The World War I Commemorative Medal, The World War I Victory Medal,  The Freedom Medal, and The World War II Commemorative Medal.

I wonder how they would have felt had they known that he risked life and limb in two world wars, spied on the Nazi’s and had been friends with and hosted some of the most recognisable celebrities and literary figures of the 20th century?

Alas, the stone throwers of Peekskill never saw any of that and only saw what they considered to be a dumb ageing black man with a distinct limp, and so he was thrown to the ground and beaten.

They were not to know that he had endured much worse in the course of defending the country he had come to regard as home.

Nothing more was really heard of Bullard until 1954 when the French government invited to him Paris to help rekindle the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe.

Eugene, standing with two white former soldiers who were invited to light the flame, was treated like a hero. Crowds called his name, soldiers and ex soldiers congratulated him, he was recognised by some and fetted by those who remembered him from his days in Paris. General de Gaul embraced and greeted him.

The day after the ceremony, Eugene was invited to a Government building where he was presented with a cheque representing compensation for his demolished property and his ruined business which was destroyed during the war.

When presenting the cheque, the French Government official said honestly that the cheque did not represent a sufficient sum in compensation but his hands were tied by strict rules concerning the amount of compensation available. He further added, that no matter what sum was paid, it would never be enough to recognise what Eugene Bullard had done for France.

Eugene returned to New York and with the modest sum he received from France he bought a small apartment in Harlem. It was not the greatest area in which to live but he would be away from White Prejudice there.

At one point he returned to Georgia in search of his family but met with little success and huge hostility. The story goes that he was about to be lynched until saved by some FBI agents and his gun. He never returned to Georgia again.

However, The French Republic was not finished with Eugene Jaques Bullard.

In the United States, his war record and remarkable life had gone unnoticed and unrewarded. Whilst other serving soldiers received war pensions and benefits, Bullard was ignored and received nothing. He was not even recognised among the nation’s early aviators though others who had flown for France in the La Fayette Espadrilles were.

There is only one honour which ranks higher in French military etiquette than the Croix de Guerre and that is The Legion of Honour, or to be absolutely accurate when someone is adopted into the National Order of the Legion of Honour which is an order comprising of only those who are deemed to have given the highest and bravest of service to France. It is an order which was established by Napoleon Bonaparte on 19 May 1802.

In 1959, The Government of France bestowed the title of Chevalier ( Knight ) de Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur on Eugene Jaques Bullard for his outstanding contribution in defending the interests of France and in upholding the values of the country.

Eugene was presented with his medal at a lavish ceremony in New York.

At long last, some Government officials started to ask “Who is this guy Bullard?” when they heard that he was to be decorated.

In the same year, a state visit was arranged for the following year whereby De Gaul would come to the USA and visit Eisenhower and address the both houses on the Capitol.

However, De Gaul’s staff also had a special request.

“ The General wished to meet with Eugene Jacque Bullard – one of France’s greatest heroes but who lives in America!”

The Whitehouse went into panic as they had no idea who Bullard was or where he was. A search for the mysterious war hero was undertaken and eventually they found that Eugene Jacques Bullard was working as a lift operator at 30 Rockefeller Plaza – one of New York’s best known skyscrapers and a building which housed the Rainbow Room restaurant and the fledgling ABC network.

No one in the building knew Eugene as anyone other than the lift man.

On December 22, 1959, just over a year after Murrow’s wires and lights speech, Eugene, wearing his lift operator’s uniform, was the subject of a short interview on NBC’s Today Show by Dave Garroway and received hundreds of letters from viewers as a result.

It was not an in depth interview and it failed to tell many aspects of his remarkable life. It made no mention of his having been the man who was seen to be beaten by law enforcement officers and protestors at the Peekskill riots.

In 1960, De Gaul came to America and at a public ceremony in New York he proclaimed Bullard as a true hero of the French Republic and the people of France.

Less than two years later, on October 12th 1961 Eugene Jacques Bullard died at the age of 66 in his New York Apartment. He died of stomach cancer and it can be surmised that his illness was brought about by the gases he inhaled in the First World War trenches.

Five days later he was buried with full military honours in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in the New York City borough of Queens with representatives of the French Government present. There were no representatives of any official American body present. His coffin was draped with the French tri-colour.

Eugene Jaques Bullard was the recipient of no less than fifteen official decorations from the government of France:

Chevalier de Legion of Honour, Médaille militaire, Croix de guerre with bronze star, Volunteer combatant’s cross 1914–1918, Combatant’s Cross, Insignia for the Military Wounded, The Victory Medal, The Verdun Medal, The Somme Medal, The World War I Commemorative Medal, The Commemorative medal for voluntary service in Free France, The World War II Commemorative Medal, The Voluntary Enlistment Medal (World War I), The American Volunteers with the French Army Medal.

On August 23, 1994, thirty-three years after his death, and seventy-seven years to the day after the physical that should have allowed him to fly for his own country, Eugene Bullard was posthumously commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.

Over the years, Bullard was referenced in some Hollywood movies but his name was always obscured and his full story was never told. The late Richard Attenborough was said to be very keen on making a full movie of his remarkable life and at the time of writing a film entitled “Black Jacques” is said to be ready to start production in early 2016.

Each year, The Actors Equity Association awards the Paul Robeson Citation Award to that actor or actress who has  best exemplified the principles by which Robeson lived his life; namely, a dedication to freedom of expression and respect for human dignity regardless of race or nationality.

In 2015, the award was presented to Arthur French who has worked on and Off Broadway for more than 50 years. Past winners include Maya Angelou, Sydney Poitier, James Earl Jones and various others.

Each and every year, since 1971, The Radio and Television Digital News Association have been honouring those responsible for outstanding achievements in electronic journalism with the Edward R. Murrow Awards.

Murrow Award recipients are meant to have demonstrated the excellence, courage and ethics of the chain smoking newsman in his prime.

Murrow’s historic fight with McCarthy and all the tension that surrounded it was brilliantly captured in the movie “ Good Night and Good Luck” which was produced and directed by George Clooney. David Strathearn is absolutely brilliant as Murrow.

All three of these men stood up against prejudice, bullying and harassment in their different ways and different forms. All three lived lives which in different ways stood for freedom of speech, freedom to associate and freedom from oppression. Or to put it another way they all believed in Liberté, égalité, and fraternité.

Perhaps you knew of their story before?

However, I genuinely hope that you have read this on your laptop, tablet, desktop or phone and learned at least something about these people for the first time.


Because the screen you are looking at, no matter how large or small, can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.

Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.

The spirit and determination of men such as Robeson, Murrow and Eugene Jaques Bullard deserve to be remembered.

Good night ……….. and Good luck.


I hope it becomes clear to anyone reading these entries that I enjoy writing them. As it says on the homepage of the Strandsky website they are for the enjoyment of the reader ….. and the writer.

If you did enjoy this, or any other of my stories, please bear the following in mind.

It has cost you nothing but your time to read this: similarly it has cost me nothing but my time to write it from the comfort of my home.

Some people don’t have such comforts as they have no home at all.

I am sleeping out voluntarily for the homeless on Saturday 14th November with a view to raising some money to help homeless and poor people this Christmas.

Over 1,000 Glasgow children will wake up on Christmas day without a home and that is a disgrace.

Accordingly, if you have gotten this far, would it be too much to ask that you pledge £1 to my homeless campaign by donating here.

Normally, my stories are read by about 3,000 different people and if every single one gave just one pound that would make a huge difference.

It would bring a whole new meaning to the phrase – Good night, and Good luck!

Thankyou for reading.


2 Responses to “Paul Robeson, Ed Murrow and The Lucky Number Seven”

  1. John Mc Court November 7, 2015 at 9:56 pm #

    Thouraly enjoyable read Jim

  2. Damian Glancy July 29, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    I feel very humbled after reading that. Superbly written and it would be great to shine a brighter light on Jacques’ story through a film.

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