Janet Bragg made history in 1942 by becoming the first Black woman to earn her commercial pilot’s license in the United States. Bessie Coleman, another pioneering aviator whose exploits predated Bragg, was forced to earn her pilot’s license in France, becoming the first African-American, first woman and first American to earn an international pilot’s license.
Born Janet Harmon on March 24, 1907 in Griffin, Ga., Bragg entered Spelman College earning a registered nurse degree in 1929. While working in Chicago, Bragg became interested in flying and joined an all-Black aviation school, Aeronautical University, in the small town of Robbins, Illinois. Bragg, who married and divorced Evans Waterford during this period, was the only woman in the class of 24.
The school was poor and didn’t have a plane, so it couldn’t offer actual flight instruction. Bragg used $600 of her own money to buy a plane and rented it out to the school. While at the school, she earned her private pilot’s license and helped build an airfield there. At the time, Black pilots were not allowed to fly out of airfields where white pilots flew.
In the ’30’s, Bragg wrote a weekly column titled “Negro Aviation,” for the Chicago Defender under the byline Janet Waterford. She joined the Civilian Pilot Training Program in Tuskegee, Alabama, but despite completing the program, she was denied a commercial license in the state because she was a “colored girl.”
Undeterred, Bragg continued her fight to join one of the several air corps that supported American troops during World War II. Bragg and several other Black women applied for the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASPS) program and were universally passed over. Despite her training as a nurse, the military nurse corps also wouldn’t accept her to their ranks.
In 1942, Bragg easily passed her commercial pilot’s test in Illinois and received her license. But instead of taking to the skies, Bragg used her nursing background to open her own health care facility for welfare recipients. In 1951, she married Sumner Bragg and the pair ran a successful nursing home business. Bragg connected with the African nation of Ethiopia after befriending students from there, and was invited to meet Emperor Hallie Selassie in 1955.
The Braggs retired their the nursing home business in 1972 and began leading tours to Africa. After her husband’s death in 1986, Bragg moved to Arizona and became something of an activist supporting civil rights and housing opportunities. The aviation industry has recognized her feats in various ways over the years.
Bragg passed away in Blue Island, Ill., near Chicago, in 1993 at the age of 86.