Janet Harmon Bragg: Flying in the Face of Convention

Janet Bragg (Photo: African American Registry)

Janet Bragg (Photo: African American Registry)

“I’m not afraid of tomorrow because I’ve seen yesterday, and today is beautiful.”- Janet Harmon Bragg (1991).

It was a normal day in 1940’s Chicago when a young African American woman disembarked the test plane to receive her pilot’s license. There were no signifiers to distinguish this credential from the many issued to aspiring aviators before it, yet its recipient Janet Harmon Bragg was not a normal person. This was her second time testing for a pilot’s license and her groundbreaking success was the culmination of many years spent fighting against the current as an aspiring pilot who was both Black and a woman.

Bragg lived a life of challenges and victories, and found herself a unique heroine of aviation by its end. She was a woman who truly embodied the spirit of the WASP although the ugly social realities of her time prevented her from joining the organization itself or even participate in medical army service despite her clear professional qualifications. Her story is one of indomitable will over obstacles, bravery in the face of harsh discrimination, and the poignant strength of looking beyond the horizon at a more inclusive future in a world where boundaries of convention were only beginning to inch forward on a long and continuing journey.

Bragg was born March 24, 1907 in Griffin, Georgia, the youngest of seven children of Samuel Harmon and Cordia Bates.  As a young woman she pursued a nursing degree at Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) in Atlanta. In her training at MacBicar hospital she was one of the two out of twelve students in her class to receive a registered nursing degree in 1929. After graduation she moved to Rockford, Illinois where she soon began work at Wilson Hospital.

One day in 1933, Bragg spotted a billboard depicting a bird’s nest and the phrase “Birds learn to fly. Why can’t you?” As she recalled in a 1989 interview with the Arizona Historical Society, her mind was drawn back to her childhood, when she had watched birds take flight outside and wished to do the same herself. Wasting no time, she enrolled at Aeronautical University in Chicago, receiving instruction from Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson in meteorology, aeronautics, and aircraft mechanics.

Although her classmates were black, Bragg once again found herself the odd one out as a only woman in a class full of men. However, it wasn’t long before being one of the few students with a job paid off and she was able to buy a plane for $600 (the first of three she would own). Since the school owned no airplanes and was therefore able to offer no hands-on flight instruction, Bragg was able to earn a measure of respect from fellow students while collecting money from renting the plane out. Since black pilots were restricted from departing at airports used by whites, Bragg and a number of her classmates and instructors formed the Challenger Aero Club (later known as the National Airmen’s Association of America), purchased land, and built an airfield in the all-black town of Robbins, Illinois.

Janet Waterford Bragg (far right) poses with relatives, circa 1937. A registered nurse, Bragg purchased the first aircraft for the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, Chicago’s first black flying club. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Janet Waterford Bragg (far right) poses with relatives, circa 1937. A registered nurse, Bragg purchased the first aircraft for the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, Chicago’s first black flying club. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Following her graduation from Aeronautical University, Bragg received her private pilot’s license. During the 1930s she wrote a bi-weekly column in the Chicago Defender under the name Janet Waterford and by 1939, along with several colleagues started the only Civilian Pilot Training Program for African Americans located outside of a college campus.

By 1943, as World War ll raged on, a white female student of Bragg’s suggested that she apply to Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). To this end she met with Ethel Sheehy, the assistant to WASP head Jacqueline Cochran, who was surprised to discover Bragg’s race, noting “I’ve never interviewed a colored girl for flying.” To this Bragg simply replied “Well, we have plenty of them fly.” Bragg was sent home without an interview, but with the faint hope that she would hear more from the organization. Any expectations she may have harbored were dashed several weeks later when she received a letter from Cochran herself, definitively rejecting Bragg because of her race. She went on to apply to the military nurse corps, who also rejected her on the grounds that their “colored quota” had already been filled.

Bragg then attended the Commercial Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee, Institute in Alabama as she worked toward achieving her license. Although she completed her written work, her efforts were hampered by rampant racism and sexism. Despite demonstrating that she was more than competent in the air and passed her flight test, Bragg’s instructor declared, “She gave me a ride I’d put up with any of your flight instructors. I’ve never given a colored girl a commercial pilot’s license, and I don’t intend to.”

Unwilling to accept defeat, Bragg took the examination again in Chicago and this time passed, becoming the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license.

After her return to the windy city, Bragg and her brother purchased and opened a health care center for patients on welfare. She and her second husband Sumner managed two nursing homes in Chicago until their retirement in 1972.

Bragg’s life would continue to be colorful and shaped by her interest in aviation. After befriending some Ethiopian students studying in the U.S., Bragg was invited to visit the country and meet Emperor Haile Selassie in 1955. Throughout the late 1970s she returned to Africa, traveling and leading tour groups. She also volunteered with the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, where she had relocated in her years of retirement, assisting with their Black Wings exhibit. Bragg continued to contribute to her community through participation in local organizations such as the Tucson Arizona Urban League, Habitat for Humanity, and the Adopt-a-Scholar program at Tucson’s Pima College.

In 1996 the Smithsonian Institution Press published Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator a book that allowed Bragg, with the assistance of author Marjorie M. Kriz, to finally chisel out a place for herself in the public consciousness as the pioneering and tenacious leader in aviation and race and gender advancement that she was.

Before her death in 1993 Bragg finally experienced recognition of her achievements, receiving awards and appearance requests for aviation events around America. Her legacy lives on in all the young women who have followed in her footsteps, defying social norms to fulfill their dreams.