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*Cecil Peterson was born on this date in 1919. He was a Black Military officer. From Buffalo, New York, his father was Sneedy Rodney Little from California, and his mother was Zoe Louise Tolliver. Cecil’s half-siblings were Josephine, Oscar, and Hazel.
His mother passed when he was a year old, leaving him orphaned. Peterson’s childhood was spent in foster homes and state-run institutions like New York’s State Training School during the 1930s. By the 1940s, despite the obstacles, he was a student government leader for the National Youth Administration. This WPA federal program was designed to help high school students affected by the Great Depression find work. One of the most vocal supporters of the NYA was the First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt.
By 1942, Peterson had enlisted in the United States Army, serving as a private at the Army Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama. First Lady Roosevelt had supported the Tuskegee Airmen training program from its inception. To that end, she asked for a pen pal among the recruits to gain firsthand appreciation; Peterson was asked to be that pen pal. On May 25, 1942, their special correspondence began with a letter from the First Lady to Recruit Peterson, indicating that Eleanor Roosevelt was “so interested that you are at the flying school in Tuskegee because I have seen it.”
As the letters progressed, Cecil shared his advancements and experiences. Sometimes Pvt. Peterson’s letters would reveal everyday challenges faced by soldiers training during that time, including an epidemic of mumps that affected the facility in the spring of 1943. That affection went both ways, with the First Lady asking Cecil and other Tuskegee Airmen she was close with to refer to her as “Auntie Eleanor.” Peterson’s service included time at the Tuskegee Flying School and Guadalcanal. After World War II, he served in the Korean War. He would eventually earn a commission as Lieutenant.
After his military service, he moved to Los Angeles, where he married Elaine Grace Broady on June 23, 1957, and started a family. Peterson served as a Los Angeles Commissioner chairman and as a volunteer representative from Districts 6 and 8 to the California Senior State Legislature. He would participate in local events, such as marching in the Los Angeles Black Veteran’s Parade in 1981.
His collection of Tuskegee Airmen artifacts and documents would be featured in museums such as the 2009 California African American Museum’s “Tuskegee: The Journey to Flight” exhibit and is held permanently at the Rivera Library in Riverside, California for future generations to learn about the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1983, Lt. Peterson was part of the Coro Reinvest program designed to connect seasoned experts with their community. On March 15, 2006, Cecil Peterson passed away in Los Angeles.