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Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg Soars Above Setbacks

February 2024

Spelman alumna Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg, C’29, was an American aviator, nurse and first Black woman to hold a commercial pilot license. As a 2022 inductee in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame, her life and determination continues to inspire generations of aviators and women in the field of aviation. 

After graduating from Spelman in 1929 with a degree in nursing, Bragg landed a job at Wilson Hospital in Chicago. While in Illinois, she became the first Black woman to enroll in the Curtiss Wright School of Aeronautics, a segregated aviation school, to pursue an education in meteorology, aeronautics and aircraft mechanics. Four years later in 1933, she began matriculating at Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University -- the only woman in a class of 24 Black men. The school did not have any airplanes and thus could not provide flight instruction, but Bragg did not let that stop her. In 1934, she provided $600 of her own money to buy the school's first airplane.

Despite having access to a plane thanks to her generosity, learning to fly proved to be a challenge. At the time, Black pilots were not allowed to fly out of airports earned by whites. To combat this, her class at the ground school, with the aid of their instructors, formed the Challenger Aero Club and bought land to build an airfield in the all-Black town of Robbins, Illinois. After many rejections, Bragg obtained both her private and commercial pilot licenses.

In addition to aviation, Bragg owned and ran a nursing home business that eventually housed 60 patients. In the 1950’s, she was invited to Ethiopia to meet the emperor, Haile Selassie. The two would partner to operate several successful nursing homes though the 1960s and early 1970s.

Bragg's legacy endures as a testament to the power of resilience and determination, The Georgia native received many awards and accolades for her contributions to both aviation and nursing before she passed peacefully in 1993 on April 11, the date of Spelman's founding. Her autobiography, "Soaring Above Setbacks," with Marjorie Kriz, was published posthumously in 1996. 

 

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