The dialogue shared between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Cecil Peterson is fascinating. Peterson, a Black military officer who had become an orphan early in life, went on to become a part of the National Youth Administration (NYA), which happened to be an organization of which Mrs. Roosevelt was very supportive.
Peterson went on to enlist in the military and serve as a Private First Class at a flight school in Tuskegee, Alabama.
After Mrs. Roosevelt's famous, successful flight with Charles "Chief" Anderson, she became an avid supporter of the training program installed for African Americans, and requested that she be assigned a pen pal to maintain that appreciation firsthand.
Interestingly enough, Cecil Peterson, the “boy” who was a member of the NYA and had presented her with a plaque during her visit to Maine, would become the man assigned responsibility for maintaining communications with her throughout the war.
What I found most interesting was the shift in tone between the two individuals—Ms. Roosevelt and Cecil Peterson. The transition could be felt throughout their letters’ pages, as the relationship between Roosevelt and Peterson began to blossom. Reading through the letters, it was clear that the woman who once asked, “Can Negroes fly?” had evolved. Words of reflection, admiration and encouragement replaced those of uncertainty and condescension.
Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to Peterson about her leisurely days, her grandchildren, and even her aging horse, who she said spent its days grazing in the fields. In turn, Peterson wrote to her about his several promotions, his gratitude and expectations for his time there.
Over time, the dialogue transitioned from a formality into a warmer, friendlier discussion between the two individuals. I felt as though it marked an important moment, one in which segregation took a back seat, and allowed two people to converse as human beings were always intended to.
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