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Early African American Aviators

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Janet Bragg

Janet Bragg (right) stands with her family, circa 1937. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6610.


Jane Nattie Harmon was born 24 March 1907 in Griffin, Georgia to Samuel Harmon and Cordia Batts. According to her autobiography, her father was a brick contractor while her mother was a homemaker who sometime worked outside the home (Bragg, 1996). She was the seventh child in a family with African and Cherokee ancestry. Jane Nettie soon became known as Janet when her third grade teacher combined the two names. She attended Episcopal boarding schools and after graduation pursued a nursing degree at Spelman Seminary (soon to be Spelman College) in Atlanta, where she qualified as a registered nurse in 1929.

At some point in 1931, Harmon left for Chicago's south side, where she moved into a three-flat building owned by registered nurse Mrs. Willie Carey. This move would allow Harmon to look for work in Chicago. After a series of non-nursing jobs, she finally was hired in a night supervisor job at Wilson Hospital. During this time she came to realize that de facto segregation existed in the north as much as it did in the south, and that getting a job was almost as difficult, despite her good education.

In 1933 Harmon enrolled at Aeronautical University, formerly a Curtiss-Wright school, a segregated black aviation school managed by John C. Robinson and Cornelius Coffey. As she states in her autobiography, she was inspired to learn to fly when she saw a billboard in Chicago with a bird sitting on the rim of a nest, nurturing her young fledglings into the sky. The billboard read, "Birds Learn to Fly. Why Can't You?" (Bragg, 1996). She was the only woman in a class of 24 black men. With $600 of Harmon's money the school was able to purchase its first licensed airplane, an OX-5 International, in 1934. Chicago aviation pioneer Harold Hurd believes this airplane was the first licensed plane to be owned by a black woman. At the time, the school was also building its own airfield in Robbins, Illinois. In the summer of 1934, Harmon learned how to fly and earned her private pilot's license. Even at that time flying was considered a man's game, and the black men in the club would not help her. It was not until she helped fund the purchase of the airplane, as well as the purchase and building of the airfield, that her colleagues' respect for her grew.

Out of this airfield, Harmon, Coffey, Robinson, and some of her classmates formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, later known as the National Airmen's Association of America (NAAA), to create a nationwide network of African Americans who were interested in learning to fly. Around 1934, the school's flight training program moved to Harlem Airport in Oak Lawn, Illinois, after the hangar they built at Robbins was destroyed by a storm. The move allowed for further development of the school, and in 1939 Harmon and her colleagues were allowed to start the only Civilian Pilot Training Program for African Americans that was not located on a college campus.

The NAAA was incorporated by the state of Illinois on 16 August 1939, with Coffey as president. Other charter members included Dale White, Harold Hurd, Willa Brown, Marie St. Clair, Charles Johnson, Chauncey Spencer, Grover Nash, Edward Johnson, George Williams, and Enoch P. Waters, Jr. The mission of the NAAA was to stimulate interest in aviation and to promote a better understanding of the field of aeronautics within the black community. Even before being incorporated, the NAAA sent two of its charter members, Dale White and Chauncey Spencer, to Washington, D.C. to meet with government officials to promote the cause of black participation in aviation. In order to finance this trip, which left Chicago on 9 May 1939, the group had to raise funds for the rental of a Lincoln-Paige biplane, fuel, food, hotel expenses, and incidentals. After the members drained their own funds for this flight, they still came up short. It was then recommended by local businessmen that they approach the Jones brothers, who headed the policy racket (or numbers game) on the south side of Chicago. The Jones brothers came up with the remaining cash needed to fund the trip (Bragg, 1996). Thus, like James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen in September 1932 when they received funding from numbers runner Ed "Small Black" Dennis in order to make their historic cross-country flight, the Chicago flyers also had to turn to an "extra-legal" source of funding for their historic flight. At the same time, white pilots were often receiving corporate support for their efforts.

In 1943, during World War II, Harmon was encouraged by a white woman she was teaching to fly to apply for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) Organization. When she met with Ethel Sheehy, who was at the time the assistant to Jacqueline Cochran, the head of WASP, Sheehy was taken aback when she realized Harmon was black. Sheehy told her, "Well, I've never interviewed a colored girl for flying," to which Harmon replied, "Well, we have plenty of them to fly." Sheehy then proceeded to send Harmon home without an interview. Harmon later applied to the military nurse corps, but was denied admission here as well because, it was claimed, the "colored quota" had already been met. In both of these instances, Harmon was passed over for white women with weaker credentials.

Thus, nearly 20 years after Bessie Coleman was denied entry to flight schools in the United States because of her race and gender, Harmon was denied entry into non-segregated flight schools for the same reason. Adding insult to injury, she was denied entry by white women who themselves had broken down the gender barrier. But like Bessie Coleman before her, Harmon showed persistence and grit and kept moving forward to achieve her aviation goals despite the many barriers placed before her.

Later in 1943, Harmon 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 T.K. Hudson, the federal flight examiner, who was a white southerner. Once her flight test was over, Harmon was denied a license because she was a black woman. As T.K. Hudson stated: "...I've never given a colored girl a commercial license and I don't intend to now" (Bragg, 1996).

With disappointment dogging her after this negative experience at Tuskegee Institute, Harmon returned to Chicago, retook the same examination, and passed once again. She received her commercial pilot's license at Pal-Waukee Field, Illinois. As Harmon stated later in her life, "There were so many things they said women couldn't do and blacks couldn't do...Every defeat to me was a challenge" (Bragg, 1996).

Harmon married her second husband, Sumner Bragg, in 1952, and together they managed two nursing homes in Chicago until they retired to Tucson, Arizona in 1972. Janet Harmon Bragg continued to be active in aviation until her death on 11 April 1993. 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.

Janet Harmon Bragg and Willa Brown appear on the DVD cover of my 1987 PBS documentary film Flyers In Search of a Dream, which tells the story of America's first black aviators. Both of these women were inspired by Bessie Coleman and they represent the persistence that was needed to succeed in the new field of aviation during the early years of the 20th century.

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