Simply acknowledging 92-year-old Betty Reid Soskin and her current role as the oldest National Park Ranger in the United States fails to capture the richness of her life’s experiences. Mrs. Reid Soskin is a also a historian, writer and prolific blogger who chronicles not only her past works but the lives of other pioneering African-Americans.
Born Betty Charbonnet on September 22, 1921 in Detroit, she lived in New Orleans until the age of six when a hurricane destroyed her family’s home and business. Her mother and two sisters headed to Northern California, establishing roots in the city of Oakland.
During World War II, Reid Soskin worked as a clerk for the Boilermakers Union A-36, an all-Black auxiliary unit. In her blog and in recent interviews, Reid Soskin has spoken extensively about her time working during WWII, acknowledging the Jim Crow laws of the time. In 1945, she and her first husband, Mel Reid, opened a Gospel record store in Berkeley, which is still in operation.
Running the business alone since 1978, Reid Soskin became a community activist. Although she was largely shielded from racism during much of her early time in the Bay Area, the 1950s would prove to be a challenge.
After moving to the predominately white town of Walnut Creek, Reid Soskin and her family endured racism, up to and including death threats. This period of Reid Soskin’s life was made tolerable via her alignment with a local Unitarian Universalist church congregation and the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). For the next 20 years, the UUA and the Reid family worked in unison to bring understanding between Black and White citizens in the region.
By her own words, Reid Soskin was late to arrive to the Civil Rights Movement when she became involved in the 1960s, but she hasn’t looked back since. After divorcing her husband in 1972, she married University of California psychology professor William Soskin. She served as field representative for State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, which led to her being involved in the development of the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
Although she serves as the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park interpretative ranger, she doesn’t hinge her lessons the iconic World War II figure that represented female factory workers. In fact, Reid Soskin said in a recent NPR interview that she doesn’t identify with Rosie The Riveter, as that was the narrative for White women at the time.
She chooses instead to highlight her own life and that of other African-Americans during the Second World War.
For the past 10 years, Reid Soskin has maintained a blog where she shares intimate details of her own history and that of other pioneering African Americans. It is a fascinating and eloquent living document of Black history worthy of attention.
Betty Reid Soskin’s interview with NPR:
Photo: Jim Heaphy
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