Janet Harmon Bragg
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Born Janet Harmon in Griffin, Georgia she was the daughter of Cordia Batts Harmon and Samuel Harmon, a brick contractor. Harmon’s maternal grandfather was a freed slave of Spanish descent, and her maternal grandmother was a Cherokee. Harmon, the youngest of seven children transferred from public elementary school to St. Stephens Episcopal School, a better learning environment in those days of strict segregation. She also attended Fort Valley Episcopal High School, in Fort Valley, Georgia. Harmon next went to Spelman Seminary (now Spelman College) in Atlanta, Georgia majoring in nursing.
Her training took place at MacBicar Hospital on the campus where she was one of two out of an entering class of twelve who survived the probationary period. The hospitals nursing students assisted in operations and performed other procedures customarily handled by interns. As a result they received first-rate training. Harmon received her registered nurse (R.N.) degree in 1929. After her graduation from Spelman, she moved to Rockford, Illinois, to live with a sister. While there, Harmon passed the Illinois nurses’ license test.
Unable to find professional employment in Rockford, she moved to Chicago, where she became a nurse at Wilson Hospital. About 1931, while working at Wilson, she met and married Evans Waterford; which lasted only a few years but she kept the name Waterford until she married again. In 1933, she enrolled in Aeronautical University ground school. Her education was in meteorology, aeronautics, and aircraft mechanics. Because the school owned no airplanes, it could not provide actual flight instruction, so she decided it made more sense financially to purchase her own plane, which she could rent out. The plane, costing $600, was the first of three she would own. Finding an airfield where she could learn to learn to fly proved impossible. Black pilots were not allowed to fly out of airports used by whites. The class at the ground school, with the aid of their instructors, formed the Challenger Aero Club. The group purchased land and built an airfield in the small, all-Black town of Robbins, Illinois.
In the spring of 1934, after thirty-five solo hours, she passed the test for the private pilot’s license. Also during the 1930s, she wrote a weekly column, “Negro Aviation,” in the Chicago Defender under the byline Janet Waterford. In 1943, during World War II, Waterford and several other Black women applied for appointments with the Women’s Auxiliary Service Pilots (WASPS). The interviewer rejected her and her appeal was unsuccessful. She then applied to the military nurse corps but was informed that the quota for Black nurses was filled. Waterford went to the CPTP School at Tuskegee, Alabama, to obtain her commercial pilot’s license. After successfully completing her written work, she took and passed her flight test, but a bigoted instructor refused to issue her license. She returned to Chicago, where she passed the test with ease, the first Black woman to do so. Waterford continued to work as a health inspector with an eye to start her own business. Along with her brother, they’d purchased property for a health care facility for patients on welfare.
The venture grew into a nursing home business that eventually housed sixty patients. She married Sumner Bragg late in 1951, and he joined her in running the business. They had no children. Bragg befriended several Ethiopian students studying in the United States and she was invited to Ethiopia to meet the emperor, Haile Selassie, in 1955. They operated several nursing homes successfully until 1972. Later in the 70’s, she traveled widely in Africa, leading tour groups. In 1986, after her husband’s death, she moved to Arizona. She was active in such civic organizations as the Tucson Arizona Urban League, Habitat for Humanity, and the Adopt-a-Scholar Program at Pima College in Tucson.
Bragg’s achievements were eventually recognized. Invited to appear at aviation events around the country, she received many awards and honors. Janet Bragg died in Blue Island, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago on April 11, 1993.