A Not-Always-Rosie Road

Betty Reid Soskin earned fame as “the nation’s oldest park ranger,”
but her contributions to America’s national parks run much deeper

(NOTE: Clicking on most images will launch a full-sized viewer).

By Kathleen Richards

On a brisk, foggy morning in mid-July, reporters gathered outside the visitor center of Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park, which sits on the waterfront of Richmond, California. Cameramen from CNN and television networks around the San Francisco Bay Area jockeyed for position and plotted their angles. Inside, female reporters in tailored dresses and high heels uncoiled cables and set up microphones. Rangers and volunteers neatly lined up near the door. They all were eagerly anticipating the arrival of one petite woman.

She is a celebrity, but not the kind you’ll see in the pages of the glosssy tabloids at your local supermarket. Betty Reid Soskin is an interpretive park ranger at Rosie the Riveter and one of the most well-known park rangers in the United States. She helped light the national holiday tree, received a commemorative coin from President Obama himself, and is the subject of an upcoming documentary.

Her claim to fame? Although her name is synonymous with “the nation’s oldest park ranger”— a title that is technically accurate — it is not her age (94 years young) that distinguishes her, nor is it the basis of her value or contributions to America’s parks. She did live through the period that the Rosie the Riveter park honors, and indeed was present in Richmond at the time of its epic ship-building. But these facts also do not fully explain why she is so popular, or so beloved.

On this day in July, she was returning to work after having recuperated from a much-publicized home-invasion robbery, which left her bruised and battered. In June, an intruder broke into Soskin’s bedroom and assaulted her. She was able to get away by grabbing his genitals and locking herself in her bathroom, where she heated up an iron to the “linen” setting and prepared to brand him. Meanwhile, the attacker escaped with some of Soskin’s valuables, including the commemorative coin given to her by President Obama (which has since been replaced). Soskin received an outpouring of support from around the world after the attack, but insisted she was not a “victim.”

Indeed, interviews with friends, family members, co-workers, and strangers paint a portrait of a strong, passionate woman with a rich life history and a gift for storytelling.

“She’s a very compelling speaker,” said Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, who’s also a close friend of Soskin’s. “She’s an excellent writer. She’s able to tell stories from a whole different perspective than people are used to hearing. She’s become an icon.”

“She is a unique individual,” said Tom Leatherman, her boss and general superintendent for the National Park Service. “She has been a mentor. Watching the way she approaches life and the way she approaches her job is just inspirational.”

“She’s so wise, there’s no other word for it,” volunteer docent Gail Wiemann said.

“She has a fire within her,” said Kimiko De Pedro, an executive assistant at Golden Gate National Recreation Area and former ranger at Rosie the Riveter. “I think she’s resilient, and that’s what really pulls people in.”

Soskin’s charisma is undeniable, to be sure. But what she’s been able to accomplish with her spunk and charm is even more impressive. Soskin is one of the most visible African-American park rangers in the country. Like Shelton Johnson — a ranger in Yosemite National Park who has worked to keep alive the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Army regiments who served as precursors to park rangers — Soskin also has made significant contributions to highlighting the role of people of color in shaping our country.

She has amplified and legitimized not only her own experience, but those whose stories often are overlooked in America’s history books. Three days a week, Soskin gives a presentation at Rosie the Riveter’s visitor center in which she contextualizes the forces that shaped her life and led her to become a ranger. Simultaneously, she pulls back the veil on an ugly chapter of American history, and connects it to present-day struggles for social justice. In doing so, she reflects something about ourselves, causing us to examine who we’ve been, who we are, and who we want to be.

“She’s so full of history and assessment of what’s gone on, so full of truth-telling and not afraid to name names and tell things that happened, and how it was perceived, and how there was a different truth to it, and really dig in and tell the parts that are so often glossed over,” said Richard Brabham, a Richmond resident who attended Soskin’s first presentation on the day she returned to work. “She epitomizes my search to understand the white privilege that I enjoy, and understand how it has hurt others.”

“That’s what Betty has engendered here: It’s OK to talk about the things that we’re not necessarily proud of,” Leatherman said, “but it’s important to talk about them because if we don’t tell a complete story, we’re missing some piece of that. The work that she’s done here has helped inspire not just the rangers here, but it’s helped to inspire other people in the National Park Service to really look at the history we’re telling and tell a broader story than we have historically.”

How did a former suburban housewife with no college education capture the attention of a nation and get the National Park Service to create a more inclusive environment for people of color? It’s not a straightforward story. In some ways, her story is one of many stories. But if Soskin has taught us anything, it’s that we need to listen.

“There’s not too many shaped in her mold,” her son David Reid said. “She’s a story just by herself — the things that she’s done and the life she’s led. It warrants the attention. It’s a good story, and everybody’s jumping on it.”

In case it’s not yet obvious, Betty Reid Soskin is not a typical park ranger. Nor does she work at a typical national park. Opened in 2000, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park is an urban park unlike any other in the country. There is nothing, exactly, to look at — no monument or natural beauty inherent to the landscape (although the Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, which manufactured vehicles during the war, is on the same grounds as the visitor center). The park itself is made up of a bunch of sites scattered around Richmond, and not all of them are even open to the public. “The content is in the heads of the rangers who are doing the interpretation,” volunteer docent Gail Wiemann explained.

But Soskin’s interpretation of events don’t jibe with the one often told about this period of history — or even with the version laid out by one of the short films commissioned by park officials, which she screens before her presentation.

In “Home Front Heroes,” we hear from people who worked in the shipyards, as well as historians and others. They create a romanticized picture of the times, when men and women, black and white, put aside their differences and came together for the betterment of the nation. Some 747 ships were built in just three years and eight months. “It really was the most wonderful time of coming together of the American people that I have ever lived through,” former welder Agnes Moore tells the camera.

The first thing Soskin tells the audience after the film’s screening is that she doesn’t like this “Hollywood ending.” She describes the time as “a period of pain” and “complete rejection.”

Soskin takes care not to discredit the film, but rather acknowledges that there are many truths — her experience included. One of the things that may surprise people about Soskin is that she was not, in fact, a “Rosie”— the nickname for women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II.

Instead, twenty-year-old Betty worked as a file clerk for the Boilermakers Union A-36, a Jim Crow-segregated union hall. She spent her days changing addresses on 3-by-5 cards.

“Truth was that I was nowhere near the shoreline,” Soskin told the audience of about 40. “I was nowhere near where the ships were being built. I never did see a ship under construction, nor did I ever see a launching. I just know I came in every day and went home every night having no sense of that bigger picture of what I was involved in. None.”

To understand how Soskin got there, and why her experience was so different from those on the screen, one has to start from the beginning, and understand the various forces that shaped her life.

She was born Betty Charbonnet in 1921 to a Cajun Creole family in Detroit. The family had moved there from New Orleans because her father had called a white man by his first name — an action that could have had fatal consequences. “The family had to get him and my mother, who was pregnant with my sister, out of New Orleans to Detroit to save his life,” she told PBS host Tavis Smiley in an interview earlier this year.

Two years later, her family was back in New Orleans, but not for long: In 1927, the levees were bombed in order to save certain parts of the city, putting the Ninth and Seventh wards, and the Tremé, which was her ancestral home, under water. She moved with her mother and two sisters to Oakland, where her materal grandfather had lived since the first World War and was working as a waiter at the Oakland Athletic Club. Her father would join them a couple of years later.

Around age 12, Soskin had an experience that would have a profound effect on her. Concerned that she was at risk of contracting tuberculosis, her family sent her to a sanitarium in Livermore, about 35 miles southeast of Oakland. For about a year, Soskin kept herself company by reading.

“Before my stay there, my role was limited by the experience of my family, which was a rich Creole culture but also limited,” she said. “Through reading, I was introduced to a very different world — the world of Rudyard Kipling, the world of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the world of poetry. I used to memorize James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field, which were names that wouldn’t have found any resonance in my home. They put me into a secret world that I remember retiring into in my adolescence.”

But the secret world that Soskin created wouldn’t be expressed until later in her life. In the meantime, she was determined not to follow the paths that were available to African American women at the time — domestic servitude or working in agriculture.

At 14, Soskin met her future husband, a handsome football player named Mel Reid. They got married after she graduated from Castlemont High School in East Oakland. During his senior year at the University of San Francisco, he volunteered to join the armed forces but was told that, because he was a black man, he could only be a cook. He refused.

Back home, Soskin was facing her own discrimination. After working for the federal government as a file clerk in San Francisco, she transferred to a clerical job in the Air Force in Oakland — a position that was out of reach for African American women. (Soskin was light-skinned.) After finding out that she was “colored,” her supervisor told her she could keep the job but that a promotion wouldn’t be possible.

Soskin walked out on the Air Force at the same time her husband was returning home from refusing to be a cook in the Navy. She took a job in the Jim Crow-segregated union hall in Richmond because, as she told the public radio program BackStory, “that was at least a place that I knew where I was and who I was.”

Soskin and her husband decided to make a pact: “We did not want to be dependent on white folks ever again for our fate,” she said. And they wouldn’t.

In 1945, Betty and her husband Mel took their economic future into their own hands and opened up a record shop in the garage of their duplex in South Berkeley. “We used orange crates to hold the records and a cigar box to hold the cash register,” she said.

Selling what then were called “race records” to the Black community, Reid’s Records became a successful business, and the couple eventually moved about 20 miles east to the bucolic suburb of Walnut Creek. But life wasn’t easy.

By then they had three children: Rick (the oldest, who was adopted), Bob, and David. “It was kind of hard being one of the only Black families out there,” recalled David Reid on a recent afternoon, while he was manning the counter at Reid’s Records. (The record shop is still open after 70-plus years and specializes in gospel music and church supplies.)

Music was a constant in the family. David and his older brother Bob and mother played the guitar. After Soskin’s daughter, Dorian, was born, Soskin suffered from what she described as a “mental break.” “I was trying to make rational an irrational world at the time when I was a young mother in the suburbs, which was a hostile world,” she said. After three years of therapy, the earlier Betty — the teenage Betty — emerged, and she “found refuge in writing poetry, which expressed itself in music.”

Soskin could well have had a successful music career. She said she was offered record contracts and even made a trip to the East Coast to audition for the famous New York City jazz club the Village Vanguard. But she changed her mind. “My marriage was deteriorating, my kids needed at least one active parent, and I couldn’t justify taking up a career at that point outside of my home,” she explained. “I certainly never looked back.”

Instead, Soskin turned her attention to the Civil Rights Movement that was in full swing at the time. She was part of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus that formed in Boston, and helped collect money for the Black Panthers.

“I realized that as a middle-class African American, my role would be to be a conduit for the people who were in the inner cities,” she said. “Where nobody was going to give power to a black guy standing on the corner with a brick in his hand, I was choking on power.”

But navigating the space between the disenfranchised Black community in Berkeley and the affluent white population in the suburbs was not easy. “I discovered that being a middle-class African American in the suburbs only existed in the mind of a middle-class black person in the suburbs,” she said. “To everybody else, we were that ni**ers on the corner.”

Forced to decide whether she was “the tool of white liberals” or a Black activist, she chose the latter. Betty and her husband sold their house in the suburbs and divorced. She married an eminent psychologist at University of California, Berkeley, William Soskin, and took over the business of Reid’s Records after her ex-husband became sick.

It was at Reid’s Records that Betty really amplified her voice around social change. She participated in the building of low-income housing and became a legislative aid to Don Jelinek, a member of the Berkeley City Council, spending half her days as a merchant and the other half inside City Hall, helping to influence social policy and learning how public policy gets made.

“I found that every election I would cover my windows with newsprint, on which I would actually write out my sample ballot,” she recalled. “Over time I would see people sitting on the curb in front of my little store marking their sample ballots, and over time people would come down who were candidates for office to get my endorsement!” she said, laughing. “And that’s how my career began in politics.”

Soskin had an uncanny ability to bring people together and mobilize them. For example, she enlisted local drug dealers to stand on the corner and register voters. But she was shocked on the day she realized that they themselves couldn’t vote. “I realized that those kids could never vote because they had served time,” she said, “and I began to realize how many people in the community had had their franchise removed.” Reid’s Records became a center for the African-American community, a place where those who were illiterate could go to get their kids’ report cards read to them, or get help filling out applications for government assistance.

“Those were the years that I learned about what it meant to be a part of that community,” she said.

In 1987, Betty Reid Soskin experienced another life-altering episode. Within three months’ time, her father, her first husband, and her second husband all died. “It was unbelievable,” she recalled. “I had always been defined by the men in my life. I had no idea who Betty was.”

But it didn’t take long for her to find out. Just a few months later, “I crashed out of the grief into a period of emancipation like you have never seen!” she said, laughing gleefully. “Suddenly there was Betty, and she didn’t have a Charbonnet, she didn’t have a Reid, she didn’t have a Soskin—she was her! I went through a period of discovery and I’ve never looked back. I wish I had found that Betty a long time ago.”

Soskin left the record store business in the care of her son David, and returned to the city, Richmond, where she had spent time earlier in her life. She started working as a field representative for then State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner. Now a lobbyist, Aroner described Soskin as someone who had a particular insight into the most pressing issues affecting residents and “had the ability to make inroads into communities that many people couldn’t make inroads into.”

“Betty lived and breathed, and still lives and breathes, Richmond,” Aroner said.

It was during this time that Soskin began attending the planning meetings in the early days of the park’s inception. By then, there was a Rosie the Riveter memorial, but Soskin had never even visited. After all, she never was, nor does she consider herself to be, a Rosie. But during early planning meetings, she instantly recognized that the sites that were being considered as part of the park were “sites of racial segregation.”

Park organizers, she said, weren’t just willing but eager to know this aspect of history that they had overlooked.

“It was her input that basically changed the park’s emphasis from a Caucasian Rosie the Riveter story to an inclusive story about not only the African-American experience but also the Japanese and the Indian and everybody else, too,” David Reid said. “So had she not been there, the park might not look the way it looks today.”

Soskin eventually become a consultant on the project, which then led to her becoming a ranger. At a time when most people are winding down their lives, Soskin, at age 85, was entering a new chapter — one that would catapult her into the limelight.

This new role was one that allowed her to show off a very distinct characteristic — her skill as an orator. Soskin imbues her words with a kind of poignancy that forces you to lean in. Her language has a poetic quality — no doubt something she absorbed from all the poems she read as a child. She has the uncanny ability to flow from deeply thoughtful one minute to laugh-out-loud-funny the next. (She’s also a prolific writer, which she exercises through her blog.)

Her presentations, which are not scripted, vary slightly but have a consistent message — connecting the dots between the past and the present. “I take them all the way from my great-grandmother’s birth in 1846 to climate change,” she said. “I do it in a half-hour, and I do it successfully.”

Soskin said she doesn’t know why she’s become so popular, but she acknowledges that there’s something “magical” that happens between her and her audiences.

“I’m grateful for it because it gives my life meaning,” she said. “I think that I’m an interpretative ranger, but that’s what they’re calling it now, but I think I’m doing what I’ve always done. It gets called mothering, it gets called all these things at diferent times. But whatever it is, it’s the same thing. It’s what’s taken me through life.”