Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg
(born Jane Nettie Harmon)
March 24, 1907 — April 11, 1993
Janet Harmon Bragg is one of the first female black aviators and the first to hold a commercial pilot’s license. She faced adversity nearly all her life not only because she was black but also because she was a woman.
Bragg was born March 24, 1907, in Griffin, Ga. She pursued a nursing degree at Spellman College in Atlanta, where she qualified as a registered nurse in 1929 before she moved to Chicago to work. Bragg had always been interested in learning to fly, and in 1933, she became the only woman in her class when she enrolled at Aeronautical University in Chicago.
Bragg became the first black woman to enroll in the Curtiss Wright School of Aeronautics in Chicago. In 1933 Janet (then Waterford) enrolled at Aeronautical University, a segregated black aviation school managed by John C. Robinson and Cornelius Coffey. She was the only woman in a class with 24 black men. In 1934 she provided $600 of her own money to buy the school’s first airplane, and helped in building the school’s own airfield in Robbins, Illinois. In the summer she learnt flying and obtained her private pilot’s license. In 1943 she applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program. When she went in for an interview, Ethel Sheehy, assistant to the head of WASP, denied her an interview because she was black. A few weeks later, she received a rejection letter from Jacqueline Cochran, head of WASP, for the same reason. Her application to the military nurse corps was rejected, also on racial grounds. She then travelled to a flight school in Tuskegee, Alabama, and completed the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She was denied a pilot’s license in Alabama, for being a “colored girl”, but managed to receive a license at Pal-Waukee Field, Illinois.
Bragg was involved in the inception of the National Association of American Airmen, designed to represent the nascent profession to the government.
To learn more about Bragg, visit the Smithsonian Institution Archives and view an interview with her. Bragg’s autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996.