For National Engineers Week and Black History Month, we are celebrating the life of Hattie Scott Peterson, the first African American woman to serve as a civil engineer for the US Army Corps of Engineers and the first African American woman in the US to hold an engineering degree. One could even say she was a trailblazer for water resources engineering, working in the Hydrology Section of the Sacramento district with her work focused on forecasting floods, designing navigation projects, and researching flood control issues.
Hattie Scott Peterson was born in Norfolk, VA on October 11, 1913. Not much is reported about her early years, but she blazed a trail from the very beginning. Long before the civil rights movement and when it was still expected for a woman’s place to be in the home, Ms. Peterson was a pioneer for women’s rights and African American’s rights. She married at 29 years old, but instead of settling into a role as wife and mother, she proceeded to pursue a Bachelor’s degree from Howard University. Not only did she graduate with her civil engineering degree at 33 years old in 1946, but she was the first African American woman to earn a civil engineering degree in the entire country. She continued her path of firsts. Ms. Peterson went on to work as a survey and cartographic engineer for the US Geological Survey in California and then in 1954, she became the first woman engineer to work for the US Army Corps of Engineers focusing her efforts on flood risk reduction measures.
Ms. Peterson was passionate about women’s rights and advocated for women to pursue careers in the engineering field rather than taking standard administrative positions relegated to women who worked. We don’t know exactly the level of racism and sexism that Ms. Peterson faced, but we can only imagine what it was like to be an African American woman engineer in the mid-20th century and the roadblocks she had to overcome.
At the time of her death in 1993, she left an endowment to Howard University for scholarships for future engineers to continue her legacy. In Ms. Peterson’s honor, the USACE Sacramento District awards a Hattie Peterson Inspiration Award every year. “The purpose of the Hattie Peterson Award is to recognize the Sacramento District individual whose actions best exemplify the highest qualities of personal and professional perseverance through social challenges.”