Betty Reid Soskin, an Extraordinary Ordinary Woman
In a recent lecture at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif., The BCC Voice ambushed Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin to ask her some questions about her extraordinary life.
Sitting in the little theater where Soskin conducts her weekly Rosie the Riveter Home Front historical talks, she proudly wears her Park Ranger uniform. Barely five feet tall and scarcely 90 pounds, Soskin’s power comes from her personal history and from her willingness to talk about it plainly and honestly, without mincing words. She talks quietly, but with an iron will, and today says she “lives her life in a complete state of surprise.” At 96, Soskin is the oldest serving career Park Ranger in the United States National Park Service.
“I’m living in uncharted territory right now,” declares Soskin, “Since there are no models for me, I have to make it up as I go along. I have to reinvent myself every decade.” Having outlived two husbands and most of her friends, Soskin says, “I’ve lost my sense of the future and in compensation, my sense of the past has been amplified.”
Soskin shared that she “spends a lot of time in reflection these days.” Explaining to The BCC Voice, “we have to go back and see the past for what it was, so we can see how far we’ve come. We have to recognize, in truth, where we have been, because other than that, we have no way to know how we got to where we are. We have been many nations over the years, and some of them I’ve been through, and some of them have not been very comfortable.” Soskin has had nine decades of experience “living while Black,” and her mission now is to share that experience with anyone who will listen.
According to Soskin’s new book, “Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life,” (Hay House, Inc., 2018) she was born into a Cajun/Creole African-American family in 1921 and spent her early years in New Orleans in the era of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation. Her family later settled in Oakland, after a hurricane and the subsequent Great Flood of 1927 destroyed their home and business. The flood, at the time, was the greatest flood in history.
Soskin’s memoir also chronicles her great-grandmother, born into slavery in 1846 in St. James Parish, Louisiana. Enslaved until her 19th birthday, at which time she married a Corporal in the Louisiana State Colored Troops fighting for the North in the Civil War. She lived to be 102, dying in 1948.
“I may not be enslaved like my great-grandmother was, but there is much, much work to do. Today I’m looking out on a world in chaos. Ever since 1776, we have been a democracy in chaos — every generation must re-create democracy in its time, because democracy will never be fixed.”
“It was never meant to be fixed,” Soskin adds, “It’s a participatory form of governance for which we all have responsibility to form that ‘more perfect union,’ and that has been what has kept me going for the last decade — that sense of responsibility, that I really do have a role as that ‘extraordinary ordinary person.'”
“We’ve still not processed that history [slavery] as a nation,” explains Soskin, “A history where the women of my world [women of color] fell into three categories: house slaves, field slaves, and ‘breeders.’ And for a period of 300 years! A time when white men were using rape as a tool with which to increase their ‘stock’ after the English had outlawed slavery and ships were no longer bringing human beings for purchase into our ports. A time in our history when white men were quite literally selling their own children on the block. Tell me,” demands Soskin, “how one processes that in today’s world without explosive rage begging to be released?”
Her question is born from experience. “I used to say I’ve lived long enough to outlive my rage without losing my passion,” recalls Soskin, “But I found that after — which one was it, one of those deaths on the streets — No — it was after that white nationalist shot those nine people in South Carolina in the church.” Her eyes tear up almost imperceptibly. “I suddenly found myself in bed, in a fetal position, and that rage returned. I realized it had simply been dormant all that time. It still exists.”
Reflecting back, Soskin says her life seems to change drastically every 10-12 years. By her own count, she has lived eight or nine lives. “I’ve known a complicated set of identities,” she said. “I have been many women, sequentially.”
One of Soskin’s first jobs was as a file clerk in an all-black segregated Boilermaker’s Union Hall during World War II. During which, she was witness to the flood-tide of black and white workers who poured into the Bay Area to work in the war-time shipyards in Richmond. However, to say she’s lived nine lives, is to minimize what she has accomplished.
Soskin has been an activist, a singer/songwriter during the Civil Rights Movement, a field representative for California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, and played an integral part in the development of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, to name just a few of her accomplishments. Soskin also co-founded with her then-husband, Mel Reid, Reid’s Records in 1945, one of the first black-owned record shops in California. The record store, still in operation, is one of the oldest in Berkeley.
In the 1950s, Reid’s offered jazz, R&B, and gospel music; a range of music pioneered by people of color. As their business flourished and their family grew, the Reid’s decided to build their dream house in Walnut Creek, because their housing options in Berkeley were limited, due to redlining. She said the new neighbors were not happy to see a Black family move into the lily-white suburb and threatened to destroy the building materials if they stayed. Even then, Soskin was not easily intimidated. She spent many hours on-site guarding her property. “No one was going to tell us where to live,” she said firmly. “I was standing up for our rights.”
Eventually, she said she found and joined the local Unitarian church and slowly discovered a group of friends and allies. During the Civil Rights era, she became a bridge between her liberal white community and the Black Panthers. She would collect money in the suburbs around Diablo Valley, and hold fundraisers, then deliver the money to Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. Twenty years after moving to Walnut Creek, her once ostracizing community embraced her and sent her as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in support of George McGovern.
Soskin has been politically active throughout her life. She fought Berkeley’s City Hall to clean up the drug corridor that had overtaken Sacramento Street near Reid’s Records in the 1970s. She became so effective that she ended up working in City Hall herself, as a Legislative Aide to Berkeley council member Don Jelinek.
She also worked with Berkeley’s then-Mayor Gus Newport to help build low-income housing throughout Berkeley. She lobbied the city to purchase properties previously operating as crack houses around Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue, across the street from her store. The city eventually bought the properties and created Byron Rumford Plaza, an affordable-housing development named after the state assemblyman who authored the state’s first and most important fair-housing law.
It was from City Hall that she went to work for California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, and that led to her involvement in the creation of the Rosie the Riveter Park. It’s at the park where she was finally handed a microphone and asked to tell her story to a live audience three times a week.
While serving as a California State Assembly Field Representative, Soskin became actively involved in the planning stages and development of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park, memorializing the role and contributions of women during World War II. She entered as a state employee during the park’s planning stages in 2000. Eventually, her role morphed into that of a consultant to the National Park Service, then evolved into contract work paid for by the Rosie Trust, and finally, at age 85, she joined the National Park Service as a Park Ranger.
Reflecting on her role in the creation of the park, which would bring a spotlight to the work and conditions of African-American women working in that still-segregated environment, she cautions, “What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering.”
So Soskin has put herself in the room. “There were no black Rosies,” says Soskin, “There was still segregation in California in the 1940s, and Blacks were given only menial jobs.” As a park ranger assigned to the Rosie the Riveter Historical Park, Soskin’s historical talks at the national park museum’s small theater routinely sell out. She’s become so popular, in fact, that the park’s tour audiences have doubled. Tours are now booked months in advance, and the park has had to add tours to keep up. Soskin has become what she calls, with some surprise, “a D-list celebrity.”
Soskin works five days a week, about five hours a day, and occasionally works extra hours. Most Wednesdays and Fridays, she spends the day answering emails and requests from her desk at the park’s headquarters in downtown Richmond. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays she works at the Visitor Education Center and gives two or three presentations in its small theater.
Soskin’s mother and grandmother both lived into their tenth decade, so Soskin expects to have a few more years to make a difference. She said she is “obsessed” with being “all used up” before her time comes. She doesn’t want to leave anything on the table.
In addition to her day-job and her many speaking engagements, she is collaborating with two filmmakers making documentaries about her life. She expresses hope that during this process, “I will become whole, perhaps for the very first time, like metal shavings attracted irresistibly to a magnet. It is in these moments that I am beginning to feel all the parts of myself coming together, and the distance between them lessening.”
At the top: Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest currently serving Park Ranger in the United States Park Service. Photo Credit: Nancy Millar Patton.