In The Steps of Esteban: Tucson's African American Heritage

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Janet Harmon Bragg

Summary of a 1989 oral history by Joan Rogers; 1996

Janet Bragg was born in Griffin, Georgia in 1912, the youngest of seven children. After graduating from high school, Janet enrolled in Spellman College, a school for black women in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her RN degree in nursing from MacBicar Hospital which was on the Spellman campus. After graduation, Bragg moved to Rockford, Illinois and then to Chicago. She began a career in nursing and did post-graduate work at several institutions in Illinois.

Bragg had been interested in flying since she was a little girl. It was a billboard, however, that encouraged her to follow through on this interest. In 1933 as she was coming out of a house, Janet saw a billboard with a drawing of a nest with chicks and the caption, "Birds learn to fly. Why can't you?" She enrolled at the Aeronautical School of Engineering to begin her ground work. At the school, black and white students were segregated. She was the first black female student.

Private flying lessons were available at a nearby private airport, but at $15.00 an hour it proved too expensive. Janet bought her own plane for $600 and shared it with fellow African-American flying enthusiasts. Janet and a few other Black aviators started their own airport in Robbins, Illinois, an all-black town about 20 miles southwest of Chicago. They went on to establish the Coffey School of Aviation in 1939. This school and five other Black colleges participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) that later fed students into the Army Air Corps training program at Tuskegee, Alabama.

Although Bragg was flying regularly in Chicago, she encountered difficulty acquiring her license and gaining entry into the armed forces. She was denied entry into the Women's Air Force Service Pilot Program (WASP) because of her color, and was denied a commercial pilot's license because of color and gender. The flight examination officer stated, "She gave me a ride that I'd put up with any ... flight instructor. I've never given a colored girl a commercial pilot's license. I don't intend to now." Her second attempt at gaining a license (with a different examination officer) met with success in 1942. Bragg applied to fly hospital planes during World War II, but was denied because the quota for "colored nurses" was filled.

Janet Bragg retired from flying in 1965. She retired from nursing and moved to Tucson in 1972 because of the health of her husband, Sumner. Bragg has been involved with the Urban League and Habitat for Humanity. She has participated in the Adopt a Scholar Program at Pima College, and is a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., CMSgt. Fred Archer Chapter. She lectures locally and nationally on aviation and women in science. Janet Harmon Bragg's persistence in following her dream despite the obstacles of unfair treatment and discrimination is an example to women and minorities today.

Summary Interview with Janet Harmon Bragg
by Joan Rogers; 1989

Mrs. Bragg was interviewed by Joan Rogers, an intern in the African American History Internship Project. The theme for this year's project was "African Americans in Aviation in Arizona." Joan also wrote this summary.

Mrs. Bragg was interviewed at her home on May 15, 1989. A cassette tape of the entire interview is housed at the Arizona Historical Society. Mrs. Bragg was born in Griffin, Georgia in 1912. She grew up with her mother, father, and siblings; she is the youngest of seven children which include four brothers who caused her to be a "regular tomboy." Already she was preparing herself for the challenge of a male dominated field, aviation, where she would often be the only female in a class. She said of her family, "We were a very happy family. We were not a rich family, only rich in love, which... meant everything."

After graduating from high school in Fort Valley, Georgia, in 1927 she enrolled in the all girls and all Black school, Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She earned her degree in nursing (R.N.) from MacBicar Hospital which was on Spellman's campus. She recalled that MacBicar was a "very outstanding school" and that she "enjoyed every moment of it." Six months later she moved to Rockford, Illinois and a short time later on to Chicago where she began a career in nursing. She also did post graduate work at several institutions in Illinois. Here she realized the value of the training she received at MacBicar. She said she "wouldn't have gotten it anywhere else in the ... world."

Though Mrs. Bragg started out in the field of nursing, and made her living from it, her interest in flying started when she was a little girl. She put it this way:

"As a child I always wanted to fly ... I used to watch the birds--how they would take off and land ... It was interesting to see how they would drop their tails down when they would run to take off." She was to realize later in flying school that she had learned quite a bit by watching birds. It was really the picture of a bird that caused her to enroll in a flying program. One day in 1933 in Chicago as she was coming out of a house she saw on a billboard across the street a drawing of a bird building a nest with chicks in the nest. A caption read: "Birds learn to fly. Why can't you?" She said to herself, "They do have to learn to [laughter] ... fly." That incident "cinched it" according to Mrs. Bragg.

The owners of a Black insurance company in Chicago where she worked during the depression (1933) encouraged her to pursue her educational and other goals. After the billboard bird incident she enrolled at the Aeronautical School of Engineering to begin her ground work. Black and White students were segregated. She was the first Black female student to enter the class. Here among men she learned how to take care of planes and to be "a liberated woman." She was able to take a few lessons at a private airport where she learned to fly, but at about $15 per hour in 1933 dollars, that proved to be too expensive. So for $600 Mrs. Bragg bought her own plane and shared it with fellow flying Black enthusiasts.

With the purchase of the plane Mrs. Bragg and a few other Black pioneer aviators started their own airport in an all Black town, Robbins, Illinois (about 20 miles southwest of Chicago). This group also formed the Challenger Aero Club. This nucleus of people went on to establish the Coffey School of Aviation in 1939. This school and five other Black colleges participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) that later fed students into the Army Air Corps training program at Tuskegee, Alabama. In short, Mrs. Bragg was at the heart of Black aviation in Chicago from its inception.

In describing the difficulties and racial prejudice that she and all Blacks aspiring to pursue a career in aviation in the first half of the twentieth century encountered, Mrs. Bragg cited a number of experiences and anecdotes. She also used a bumblebee analogy:

According to recognized [aerodynamic] principles the bumblebee cannot [should not be able to] fly because of the shape and weight of his body in relation to total wing area. But, the bumblebee doesn't know this. So he goes ahead and flies anyway. And they said Blacks were not mentally qualified to learn to fly. This is the insult that we have taken, we took and [are] still taking. They could not say that our bodies were too heavy or out of shape with our arms. We had the shapes and bodies of any other human being ... and some b e a u t i f u l bodies.

Apparently African Americans did not know that they were not "mentally qualified" to fly airplanes because many of them flew anyway.

Mrs. Bragg reminds us that America was so set on denying Blacks the opportunity to fly that Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman had to journey to France to pursue their flying interests. Bullard enlisted in the French Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I and went on to fly combat missions in the War. He was highly decorated in both World Wars. Bessie Coleman received her flying license in France in the early 1920s and returned to the United States as the first Black licensed pilot. It was she who inspired the west coast Black flying movement.

In their efforts to break down discrimination and open up opportunities for Blacks to gain entry into the Army Air Corps, two of the pilots from the Chicago group flew to Washington, D.C. in 1939 to visit the then Senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman. Their message was that Blacks could fly airplanes, and the proof was their flight from Chicago. The doubtful man from Missouri said, "You have to show me these things. "Once he saw the plane, Senator Truman said, "If you flew this trap you can fly anything." Thus the Chicago group influenced the start of the Tuskegee Army Air Corps training program that had its onset in 1941. Only eight years later the Senator from Missouri, as President of the United States, would desegregate the armed forces.

Though Mrs. Bragg was flying on a regular basis in Chicago she encountered difficulty acquiring her license and gaining entry into the armed forces. In 1942 she was interviewed in Chicago for the Government Women's Air Force Service Pilot Program (WASP). The interviewer [a female] said to her, "I didn't know there was any colored girls flying." Mrs. Bragg replied, "There are plenty of them flying." However, since the training was at Sweetwater, Texas, the interviewer concluded that there would be no place for Mrs. Bragg to stay.

Undaunted, Mrs. Bragg flew her piper cub South to train with Charles "Chief' Anderson and his instructors in the civilian program at Tuskegee, Alabama so that she could be examined for her commercial pilots license. But "the man" (White flight examiner) had different ideas. After she landed from her trial flight, Chief Anderson asked the examiner, "How did she do, Mr. Hudson?" Mr. Hudson replied, "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." She was denied not only because of her color, but also because of her sex.

Back in Chicago that same year (1942) she tried again under the supervision of another White examiner from Texas. After about 30 to 40 minutes of flying, the examiner directed her to land. Following the landing he shook hands and congratulated Mrs. Bragg and told her where to pick up her license.

She wanted to fly hospital planes during World War II, and with the expressed plea for nurses and encouragement by her mother, she applied only to be told that the quota for "colored nurses" was filled. After this about the only thing that sustained Mrs. Bragg was the knowledge that she was paving the road so that it would be smoother for other Blacks. She was willing to pay the price and lay the foundation for others to follow.

When asked what advice she would give to African Americans who are interested in aviation, because she feels so strongly about the subject, she chose to write out her answer. This is what she wrote:

I hope that my experiences and the experiences of others [Black pioneer aviators] will serve a two fold purpose: 1) to convey the price that had to be paid to lay the foundation for today; but more importantly: 2) (I hope Black youth will realize) the kind of strength of character , the kind of determination and the importance of setting a goal, and [not] allowing anything to deter one from achieving that goal.

All these qualities are still needed today although many obstacles have been swept away and there are many opportunities for young minorities today. They must be made aware of opportunities in the field of aeronautics and they must be encouraged to take advantage of the opportunities which exist. Today one is held back only by the limits of his own capabilities and not by man-made blocks and strings. Therefore we expect our youth to build walls on the foundation that has been laid by supreme sacrifices .

During the interview she also stated that "the sky is the limit" for Black youth and that they can go beyond the sky into space.

Mrs. Bragg came to Tucson in 1972 because of the health of her husband, Sumner Bragg. She retired from flying in 1965 and from nursing in 1972. Since becoming a resident of Tucson she has become involved with the Urban League and Habitat for Humanity. She has participated in the Adopt a Scholar Program at Pima College. She is a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., CMSgt. Fred Archer Chapter. She lectures locally and nationally on such topics as aviation and women in science and aerospace. Her achievements and awards are too numerous to cite in this brief summary. However I must not overlook the proclamation Mayor Lewis Murphy bestowed upon her in 1982 for "Outstanding Citizen of Tucson."

The proclamation seems to be an appropriate place to end this summary.

Go to photographs of Janet Bragg

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