Mark Naison


African American Studies


Interviewee: Robert Peterson

Interviewer: Dr. Mark Naison, Kathleen Palmer

Date of Interview: August 5, 2009

Summarized by Michael Kavanagh

Born in Brooklyn, December 18th 1926, Peterson has lived in the Bronx most of his life. His Father’s parents were first generation European immigrants from Sweden and Norway, respectively. They both settled in Yonkers, NY, where they first met and later got married. In 1895, Peterson’s father was born in Yonkers, NY. At the beginning of World War I, his father joined the United States Navy as a ship navigator. When World War I ended, his father returned home and worked at the docks in Brooklyn, NY. Peterson’s mother, a first generation Irish immigrant, came to the United States at 26 years old. When his mother first arrived, she worked for a Jewish doctor on 70th Street and Broadway. His mother had a difficult time getting acclimated to life in New York. Peterson’s mother and father met in the 1920s, and despite their distinct European accents, they fell in love and got married.

His family’s first apartment was on Jackson Avenue and 163rd Street in the Bronx. They moved here in an effort to prevent his father from drink heavily on the docks after work. Efforts to curb his father’s habit failed and his family could not continue to afford the apartment. His family moved to 163rd and Tinton Avenue for a brief time, before moving again to a coldwater flat—an apartment with one coal stove and no hot water—on Elton Avenue. During the years of the Great Depression, his family was so poor that some of his younger siblings were cared for by an Aunt and he would stand in bread lines for day old bread. In order to keep warm, he and his siblings used to wear coats to bed and all sleep in the same bed.

During World War II, Peterson remembers seeing kids from his neighborhood slowly go off to war and never come home. To him, it had seemed as if the entire neighborhood went to war—the boys and even some of the women. If you had someone serving overseas, you had a little flags in the window with a little star on it for each member overseas. If one got killed, then it was a gold star. Two of his younger brothers fought overseas. The only time his mother was during the War. She worked from four o’clock until midnight cleaning offices in the Chrysler building, but never told her kids at the time. Peterson believes she did this in order to take her mind off her two sons fighting overseas. He remembers his mother receiving a telegram one day, which read, “John S. Peterson, wounded in action, letter to follow.” His mother paranoid, Peterson later found out his brother had been shot in the leg several times. It was for his injuries sustained in combat that his brother received two purple hearts.

Peterson went to elementary school at Saint Peter and Paul (“SPP”) Catholic school on 159th Street and Brook Avenue. He does not remember having to pay tuition due to multiple fundraisers that were conducted by the Sisters of Charity throughout the year. In SPP, he was pushed in order to prepare for the New York State Reagents Exams in 8th grade. Throughout his time at Saint Peter and Paul, Peterson only remembers having one Black student in the entire school. In 1941, Peterson started at Morris High School, which was mostly Jewish with a small group of Black students. While in high school, Peterson never felt pushed to go to college and did not think the school properly informed students about financial aid opportunities available. Thus, once he graduated in 1945, he went to the employment office to look for work.

He trained to be an accountant out of high school but could not find any jobs at the time. Therefore, the unemployment office sent him to work in an Italian glass cutting factory on 30th Street instead. He worked in the factory for two and a half years before being laid off. Then, he heard about accounting positions at Republic Pictures. His neighbor had worked there for several years and told Peterson that she would be able to get him a job. Shortly after applying, he got a job in the accounting department at Republic Pictures. This launched his career.

Peterson personally never encountered tensions between Blacks, Whites or Latinos when living in the Bronx. When living on Elton Avenue, his parents left the door unlocked on most nights. Most people living on Elton Avenue at the time were of European immigrant families. He remembers Latino families began moving into the neighborhood in the early 1960s, but not Blacks. Once the Latinos moved in, Peterson remembers hearing loud music playing in the park across the street most days, sometimes until two and three in the morning. Even though the noise level was not a big source of tension, Peterson viewed it as a disturbance. It was this disturbance that caused many White families to move out of the neighborhood, including the Peterson family in 1965.

He regularly listened to the radio shows of Jack Penny and Bob Hope with his family growing up. His family did not have a television, and instead went to Sunday afternoon movies. His extended family would always gather on Sundays to enjoy a traditional Irish meal prepared by his mother. He was raised and still is a devote Catholic and has been a lector at Saint Peter and Paul’s Church for over forty years. He has witnessed the demographic changes along Elton Avenue reflected in SPP’s congregation today. He knows that Saint Peter and Paul’s Church now offers an African mass specifically for the large Liberian community living in the neighborhood. Peterson remains very involved in the New York Armory and the National Guard’s Old Guard of the City of New York.