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Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg
I'm not afraid of tomorrow because I've seen yesterday, and today is beautiful." - Janet Bragg (1991) In 19,39, when the National Airmen's Association of America was formed, two women were among the founding members, both determined young African- Americans eager to learn and enter the still evolving world of aviation. One was Willa Brown, the other Janet Bragg. Born Janet Harmon in Griffin, Georgia on March 24, 1907, she gained her interest in aviation while still in her formative years. "As a child I always wanted to fly . . . I used to watch the birds - - how they would take off and land," she said in an interview with the Arizona Historical Society in 1989. One day in 1933 in Chicago, she saw a billboard across the street with a drawing of a bird building a nest with chicks inside. The caption on the billboard read: "Birds learn to fly. Why can't you" That day she knew where her future lay. A registered nurse who received her degree and training from Spellman College and MacBicar Hospital, both Black institutions respectively, Bragg enrolled at Curtis Wright School of Aeronautics in 1933. Despite constant harassment by fellow students, she completed her course work and helped build an airport and hangar in Robbins, Illinois. She bought the hangar's first plane.
Like many African Americans during a time of rigid segregation, Bragg continued to meet opposition in her pursuit of a career in commercial and military aviation. She was denied entry into the Women's Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASPs), being told by Ethel Sheehy, then vice president of the '99s and Women's Flying Training Detachment executive officer, that she didn't know what to do with a Black woman. Undaunted, she flew to Tuskegee, .Alabama to train with Charles Alfred "Chief" Anderson and his instructors in the civilian program so that she could be given an exam for her commercial pilot's license. However, the white examiner denied her this right after she landed from her trial flight. He exclaimed to Anderson that, "Well, I tell you Chief, she gave me a ride I'll put up with any of your flight instructors. I've never given a colored girl a commercial pilot's license, I don't intend to now-." The same year (1942), however, she was awarded her license by another examiner after 30-40 minutes of flight.
Bragg continued to fly as a hobby and encouraged others to pursue careers in aviation, even after being denied entry into the military nurse corps because the quota for Black nurses was filled. She wrote a weekly column ( 1930s), for the Chicago Defender entitled "Negro in Aviation", reporting on the exploits of Col. John Robinson, a Black American aviator in charge of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Forces in Addis Ababa under Emperor Haile Selassie. Bragg was a founding and charter member of the Challenger Air Pilots' Association (1931), a national organization of Black American aviators, inspired by the legacy of Bessie Coleman. Bragg, along with Willa Brown, Cornelius Coffey and Dale White, established an annual memorial flight over Bessie Coleman's grave in 1935, a tradition that continued for many years.
Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg retired from flying in 1965 and retired as a nurse seven years later. A resident of Tucson, Arizona for several years, she died in Chicago in April of 1993. Aviation buffs, students and historians may want to visit the Pima Air Museum for a visual display of her life or read a copy of an interview conducted by the Arizona Historical Society, both located in Phoenix, Arizona. In addition, an autobiography on her life is being written through the Smithsonian Institute Press.
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