The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Janet Harmon Bragg: Female Aviator
For the month of March, the Smithsonian Institution Archives will be posting about interesting women from our collections in honor of Women’s History Month.
Over the past two years, I have had the privilege of watching the Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Video History Collection interviews while they were digitized. One of my favorites is Black Aviators (RU 9545) because of the stories of perseverance and triumph that interviewees shared. In one particularly compelling interview, Janet Harmon Bragg, one of the first female black aviators, describes how 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, Georgia to Samuel Harmon and Cordia Batts. She attended Episcopal boarding schools and after graduation, 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 at Wilson Hospital. In 1933, having always been interested in learning to fly, Bragg became the only woman in her class when she enrolled at Aeronautical University in Chicago under the instruction of Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson. Though all the students were black, the others would not help her because she was a woman in what they considered to be a man's territory. However, as one of the few students with a job, Bragg earned some respect from her classmates when she bought a plane for students to learn to fly. She also contributed financially to the building of the school's first airfield in Robbins, Illinois. Out of this airfield, Bragg, Coffey, Robinson, and some of her classmates, formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, later known as the National Airmen's Association of America, to connect blacks across the country who were interested in learning to fly. After graduating from the Aeronautical University, Bragg trained for, and earned, her private pilot’s license while continuing to work with Coffey and Robinson on strengthening the flight school. Around 1934, the school’s flight training program moved to Harlem Airport in Oaklawn, Illinois after the hanger they built at Robbins was destroyed by a storm. The move allowed for further development of the school, and in 1939, Bragg and her colleagues were awarded the privilege of starting the only Civilian Pilot Training Program for blacks that was not located on a college campus. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, one of the white women Bragg was teaching to fly encouraged her to apply for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Organization. When she met with Ethel Sheehy, who was then the assistant to the head of WASP, Jacqueline Cochran, Sheehy was surprised that Bragg was black. Sheehy said "Well, I've never interviewed a colored girl for flying," to which Bragg replied "Well, we have plenty of them fly." Sheehy sent her home without an interview, but told Bragg she would be in touch. A few weeks later, Bragg received a letter from Cochran underscoring what Sheehy had implied. Even though she trained women who became WASPs, Bragg was not admitted because she was black. Bragg then applied to the military nurse corps, but was denied admission there, too, because they claimed the “colored quota” had been filled.
Later in the year, Bragg enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to earn her commercial pilot's license. After completing the required coursework and passing the written exam, she took her flight test with D.K. Hudson. Once her flight test was over, Bragg was denied a license because she was a black woman, despite her skills as a pilot. When Bragg returned to Chicago, she retook the examination and passed, becoming the first black woman to receive a commercial pilot’s license.
Bragg married her husband, Sumner Bragg, in 1953 and together they managed two nursing homes in Chicago until they retired to Tucson, Arizona in 1972. Bragg continued to be active in aviation until her death on April 11, 1993. She volunteered with the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, and assisted with their Black Wings exhibit. With the help of Marjorie M. Kriz, Bragg’s autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks: The Autobiography of Janet Harmon Bragg, African American Aviator, was published by the Smithsonian Institution Press in 1996. By never giving up, Janet Harmon Bragg paved the way for female black aviators across the country.