Engineering pioneer remembered during Black History Month

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District
Published Feb. 10, 2021
Updated: Feb. 10, 2021
a smiling woman

Hattie Peterson during her tenure with the USACE Sacramento District.

a group of people standing in two rows

Hattie Peterson with Sacramento District co-workers in 1965.

a group of people sitting and standing

Hattie Peterson with Sacramento District coworkers in 1967.

SACRAMENTO, California – This February, Black History Month, the Sacramento District celebrates the life and achievements of one of the most extraordinary women in the history of the entire U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Hattie Peterson.

Not only was Peterson the first Black woman to serve as a civil engineer in the district, she is believed to be the first Black woman in the U.S. to hold an engineering degree, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

She was born Hattie Scott in 1913 in Norfolk, Virginia. According to a variety of sources, she married Donald Peterson in 1943, graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, and worked for the U.S. Geological Survey for seven years before joining the Sacramento District in 1954. At the district, she worked in the Hydrology Section of the Sacramento Engineering Department, involved in forecasting floods, designing navigation projects and researching flood control issues.

Peterson was aware of her unique status as a pioneering woman in a traditionally male profession and became an advocate for women interested in engineering careers. Upon her death in 1993, she left an endowment fund for Howard University in her and her husband’s names. As of 2017, the Architecture Department at the university continued to receive these funds, according to their annual report.

The Sacramento District grants the Hattie Peterson Inspiration Award to an individual whose actions best exemplify the highest qualities of personal and professional perseverance through social challenges, as part of the annual People’s Choice Awards.

Even apart from these memorials and her work on various flood risk reduction projects, Peterson’s legacy stands as a story of achievement, perseverance, inspiration, and hope. She reminds us not only of what can be achieved by one person, but of our collective responsibility to become a more inclusive and accepting society.

Hers and other Black stories continue to shape this nation in integral ways. This Black History Month, take some time to uncover a story that you haven’t heard before—of someone who faced obstacles that perhaps you didn’t, and overcame in ways that paved a trail for others.