By Meredith Holmgren of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Emily Margolis of the National Air and Space Museum and the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Anya Montiel of the National Museum of the American Indian, Rachel F. Seidman of the Anacostia Community Museum, and Angela Tate of the National Museum of African American History and Culture
In 1942, Janet Harmon Bragg became the first Black woman to earn a commercial pilot's license. She broke barriers every step of the way. She learned to fly in a class of all men and even bought her own airplane.
This Black History Month, learn about seven women who shaped American culture. Their achievements are represented across the Smithsonian's collections in art, music, objects, and more.
Pilot and Nurse Janet Harmon Bragg
Janet Harmon Bragg had a lifelong fascination with flight. She was born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1907. In her youth, she found inspiration learning how birds fly. She was also inspired by aviation superstar Bessie Coleman. In 1921, Coleman became the first African American woman to earn a pilot's license.
Bragg attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1929, she earned a nursing degree from MacVicar Hospital and moved to Rockford, Illinois, to begin her career.
While working as a nurse, Bragg enrolled in a course in aviation mechanics at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University (CWAU). The course's instructors, Cornelius Coffey and John C. Robinson, were the first Black graduates of CWAU. They offered the course to encourage more Black men to work in aviation. Bragg was the only woman to enroll.
Her class did not have access to an airplane for flight training. Bragg used her personal savings from her nursing career to buy a plane and pay for fuel and maintenance. Coffey offered flying lessons to Bragg and her classmates in her plane. Still, there were further barriers to flight. Local white airport operators denied access to Black pilots, so Black residents in a suburb of Chicago helped Bragg's class establish their own airfield and hangar.
Bragg earned her pilot's license in 1934 and became a flight instructor. In 1942, she became the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot's license. She trained many students throughout her career, some of whom later served in World War II with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The WASP administrators used anti-Black admission policies to deny Bragg and other Black pilots she instructed the opportunity to serve.
Bragg retired from aviation in 1965 with around 2,000 flight hours to her name. She resumed her nursing career, founding and operating two nursing homes before she died in 1993.
Learn more about Janet Harmon Bragg in the "Chicago Flyer" episode of the National Air and Space Museum's AirSpace podcast.
More African American Women to Know
Explore the stories of these six notable performers, artists, activists, businesswomen, and inventors through our collections.
1. Silent Film Actress Kathryn Boyd
In her brief film career, Kathryn Boyd starred in two movies that broke the mold for African American women on screen. A graduate of Fisk University and Oberlin College, Boyd started her career in the Original Lafayette Players, a famed acting troupe. Her success led to roles with Norman Studios, an early African American production company. In The Flying Ace (1926), Boyd played pilot Ruth Sawtelle. Her role paid tribute to groundbreaking aviator Bessie Coleman. In Black Gold (1928), Boyd played a bank president's daughter who helps defeat the villain. At the time, African American women were often offered stereotypical film roles as household servants. Boyd's performances showed audiences intelligent, competent heroes. See materials from her two films from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
2. Basket Maker and Community Organizer Rodslen Brown
Born in 1960, Oklahoma artist Rodslen Brown learned to weave from fellow Cherokee basket makers. She went on to win awards for her baskets and advocate for her community. In 2000, she founded Project A Association. A nonprofit organization, it provides art classes, computer skills training, and food to her community. Brown also spoke out for Cherokee Freedmen, descendants of African American people enslaved by members of the Cherokee Nation. She argued that Freedmen deserved to gain citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. Look for her basket in Ancestors Know Who We Are, an online exhibition debuting June 2022 from the National Museum of the American Indian.
3. Dr. Dorothy Ferebee
Dr. Dorothy Ferebee gained national fame for her advocacy in public health, civil rights, and women's rights. In 1929, Ferebee founded the Southeast Settlement House in Washington, D.C. The organization provided Black families with childcare and children's recreational opportunities. Local white institutions would not offer these services to Black children. Ferebee also opened a private practice in D.C. and taught obstetrics, the medical field focused on pregnancy and childbirth, at Howard University.
In 1935, she organized the Mississippi Health Project, in which Ferebee and several Black nurses drove South and set up medical clinics out of their cars. Over seven years they treated thousands of sharecroppers, many of whom had never seen a doctor. Ferebee's work was featured in the magazines Reader's Digest and Vogue. She joined First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House. She became the second president of the National Council of Negro Women. See the building sign from the Southeast Neighborhood House Program Center from the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.
4. Businesswoman Annie Malone
Annie Turnbo Pope Malone revolutionized the beauty industry in the early 1900s. She is considered one of the first African American women to become a millionaire. When illness forced Malone to leave school, she continued to develop her hairdressing and chemistry skills with her sister. She invented Wonderful Hair Grower and sold it door to door in her hometown in Illinois and then in St. Louis, Missouri. As her sales increased, Malone hired and trained saleswomen. Her trainees included the saleswoman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker.
In 1918, Malone established Poro College. For about a decade, tens of thousands of women learned hairdressing and beauty culture. Poro graduates sold their products across the world. Malone used her wealth and business savvy to support African American education and civil rights. The Orphans Home she established in St. Louis still stands today. Learn more about Malone and browse the pages of a souvenir booklet about Poro College Company from the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
5. Activist, Musician, and Scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon
Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon broke ground as a civil rights leader, singer, songwriter, and museum curator. She started her singing career around 1961 during the Albany Movement, which aimed to desegregate Albany, Georgia. During this time, she cofounded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Freedom Singers with Cordell Reagon, Rutha Mae Harris, and Charles Neblett. The singers traveled across the U.S. to raise money for, and awareness of, the civil rights movement. In 1973, Reagon founded all-woman acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, which focuses its repertoire on Black women's experience and went on to earn several Grammy nominations. In 1974, Reagon became a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and directed its Black American Culture program. She also served as a professor of history at American University. Learn more about Reagon and listen to her music from Smithsonian Folkways.
6. Activist and Nurse Ruth Carol Taylor
For a year, nurse Ruth Carol Taylor received rejection letters to her flight attendant applications. Due to racist hiring practices, no United States airline had hired a Black woman for this role. Taylor filed a complaint with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD). Years of effort by the New York Urban League and SCAD led Mohawk Airlines to hire Taylor in 1957 and she became the first Black woman flight attendant in the U.S. Since airlines demanded flight attendants remain single, Taylor resigned later that year to get married. Taylor continued her activism as a journalist, author, and co-founder of anti-racist nonprofit Inter-Racial Harmony, Inc. Learn more about flight attendants who fought for equality from the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.