Betty Reid Soskin is not just any 100-year-old person in the U.S.; she is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. Soskin is a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, where she tells stories of Black Americans during World War II and her life and multifaceted career as a singer, activist and park ranger. She also talks about her experience as a Black woman in America. Despite suffering a stroke in September 2019, Soskin has remained active and continues to touch many lives.
Born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit, Michigan on September 22, 1921, Soskin lived amongst her family’s Creole community in New Orleans between 1924 and 1927, where she survived the “Great Flood” of 1927. After the flood, Soskin’s family relocated to Oakland during what came to be called the Great Migration. She has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area ever since, according to her profile by NPS.
Her career with the National Park Service began after she attended a presentation on the development of Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California in 2000. She was then working as a field representative for a California assemblyman. The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park park paid homage to Rosie the Riveter, a pop-culture icon associated with female defense workers during World War II.
At the first presentation to officially develop the park, Soskin made it known to members at the meeting that she had a “love-hate relationship” with the Rosie the Riveter icon, which she saw as telling a White woman’s story. Soskin was aware that the story of women who worked in the wartime industry also included experiences with racial segregation and discrimination. Thus, she wanted such stories to be included in the park’s historical documentation, according to NPS.
In that meeting with the National Park Service planners, Soskin was the only Black person in the room. She realized that: “The history, as I had lived it, was nowhere in sight — not one minute of it,” according to The Washington Post.
So she decided to do something about that. In 2003, Soskin became a consultant to the park. In 2007, she became a park ranger at the age of 85 to among other things share her stories with people while helping restore missing chapters of America’s history.
“I went to work at 85, which was already kind of an odd thing. My work has consisted mostly of getting together with people who are of interest and doing shows that lasted for an hour,” Soskin told USA Today.
Today, the park does not tell the story of only women who went into “men’s jobs” during the war but also of “Mexican American braceros, the Japanese American flower growers of Richmond who were sent to internment camps and the boxcar ‘Indian Village’ set up to house newly arrived railway workers from the New Mexican pueblos,” according to The New York Times.
“Without Betty’s influence, we probably would not have told various previously marginalized stories in as much depth,” park superintendent Tom Leatherman said. “Betty has an amazing ability to share her own story in a really personal and vulnerable way — not so people know more about her, but so they understand that they too have a story,” he said. “We all have a history — and it’s just as important as the history we learn in school.”
Soskin had already achieved a lot before joining the National Park Service. A mother, civil rights activist, musician, and pioneering businesswoman, she opened one of the first Black-owned record stores in the California Bay Area with her husband, Mel Reid in 1945. She wrote the song “Your Hand In Mine” about civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer in 1964. Soskin said she began writing songs in the 1960s, “at a point in my life when I was having trouble trying to figure out where I was going.”
“I found that I could sing things that I couldn’t say.”
As her performance and composition of music and poetry expanded during that period, she marched with and fundraised for the Black Panthers. But before that, she served in the United States Air Force in 1942 but left after she learned that she was only hired because “her superiors believed she was white.”
Now a legend at the National Park Service, Soskin was awarded the Silver Service Medallion by the National WWII Museum. In 2015, she was presented with a commemorative coin from President Barack Obama, and the following year, she was honored with entry into the Congressional Record. Named woman of the year in 2018 by Glamour Magazine, a middle school has also just been renamed after her.
“I know that the people who are honoring me now are such important people, and I have no idea what anyone sees in me,” said Soskin, according to The Washington Post. “I like it.”
The 100-year-old great-grandmother has also written a memoir called “Sign My Name to Freedom,” which is being made into a documentary.