America’s Oldest Park Ranger’ Is only her Latest Chapter

Betty Reid Soskin has fought to ensure that American history includes the stories that get overlooked. As she turns 100, few stories have been more remarkable than hers.

By guest author Jennifer Schuessler from the New York Times. She is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas and is based in New York.

Betty Reid Soskin. (All captions courtesy by the New York Times)

The Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historical Park, which sprawls across the former shipyards in Richmond, Calif., on the northeast edge of San Francisco Bay, tells the enormous story of the largest wartime mobilization in American history and the sweeping social changes it sparked.

Visitors can climb aboard an enormous Victory ship, one of more than 700 vessels produced in Richmond — and, in the gift shop, pick up swag emblazoned with the iconic image of the red-kerchiefed Rosie herself, arm flexed up with “We Can Do It!” bravado.

But for many, the park is synonymous with another woman: Betty.

Betty Reid Soskin, who turns 100 on Sept. 22, is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. Over the past decade and a half, she has become both an icon of the service and an unlikely celebrity, drawing overflow crowds to talks and a steady stream of media interviewers eager for the eloquent words of an indomitable 5 feet 3 inch great-grandmother once described by a colleague as “sort of like Bette Davis, Angela Davis and Yoda all rolled into one.”

She has been photographed by Annie Leibovitz, interviewed by Anderson Cooper and invited to the Obama White House (where she introduced the president at the Christmas tree lighting in 2015). And as she approaches her centennial birthday, she has, to put it mildly, persisted. She suffered a stroke in 2019, but has since resumed her ranger talks (by videoconference), and even narrated a commercial for The North Face clothing company that dropped in July.

Watch even a brief online clip of one of her ranger talks, with her gentle but uncompromising tell-it-like-it-is style, and you understand her appeal. But Ms. Soskin herself still seems a bit bewildered by “all that,” as she put it during a recent interview, gesturing toward a wall covered with framed citations and honors in her comfortably overstuffed apartment in the Richmond hills.

“I don’t have any sense of being that important,” she said, adjusting her tiny frame in a huge armchair. The only thing she has ever tried to do, she said, is “tell the truth.”

Ms. Soskin became a park ranger in her 80s, almost by accident. In 2000, she was working as a field representative for a California state legislator who asked her to sit in on early planning meetings for the park, which had just been authorised by Congress. At the first meeting, she blurted out that she had a “love-hate relationship” with the Rosie the Riveter icon, which she saw as telling a white woman’s story.

The half-million Black women who worked in home-front jobs included some who worked as welders and riveters, but Ms. Soskin’s experience was different. During the war, she worked as a file clerk in a segregated unit of the historically all-white Boilermakers union, which had resisted demands to allow full membership to Black workers.

At a later meeting, as she looked at the historical structures that would anchor the park, like the housing and child-care centers that supported the shipyard workers, Ms. Soskin — the only person of colour in the room, as she recalls — saw places of segregation. What part of the park would tell her story?

“What gets remembered depends on who is in the room doing the remembering” — it’s something of a mantra for Ms. Soskin, who stayed in that room, and at that park, and kept talking: first as a community liaison, then as a seasonal tour guide and, since 2007, as a full-time interpretive ranger.

In that role, she speaks not to the experience of Rosie the Riveter, but to her own experience. “When I became a ranger,” she said, “I was taking back my own history.”

Today the park tells the story not only of women who went into “men’s jobs” to support the war effort 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.

“Without Betty’s influence, we probably would not have told various previously marginalized stories in as much depth,” said Tom Leatherman, who has been park superintendent since 2010. But what leaves him in “awe,” he said, is her ability to connect with visitors and show them that history belongs to, and is made by, everyone.

“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.”

Ms. Soskin’s life has had so many twists and turns it’s hard to keep them straight: She’s been a suburban mother, antiwar activist, musician, business owner, faculty wife, community advocate, political aide, blogger and, of course, park ranger. “I’ve always pushed out old stuff and made room for the new,” she said.

She was born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit in 1921. She spent her early years in New Orleans, where her close-knit family’s Creole and Cajun roots ran deep. In 1927, after their home was destroyed in the Great Mississippi Flood, the family moved to a racially mixed neighbourhood in Oakland, Calif., where her father and uncles worked as waiters and Pullman porters, and lived in a tight-knit, socially conservative, devoutly Catholic Creole world.

They were a decade ahead of the war mobilization that would bring millions pouring into California to work in defense-related industries, including some 500000 African Americans, largely from the South, in what has been called the largest voluntary westward Black migration in American history.

For many who came west, the war years brought increased opportunity, and rising expectations, which would help fuel the civil rights and women’s movements. For Ms. Soskin, who had grown up in racially mixed neighbourhoods and schools, it also brought her first experiences with overt, formal segregation.

When the war started, she took a job in a U.S. Army Air Forces office, where she was surprised to realize she was passing for white. She set the record straight, and asked if she would still get her promotion. The answer was no. “I walked out on the U.S. government and told them to shove it,” she later wrote in her 2018 memoir “Sign My Name to Freedom.”

That same week, her husband Mel, a star college athlete who’d enlisted in the Navy only to be relegated to working as a cook, left the service. “He was going to fight for his country,” she said. “But he found out he could only cook for his country.”

During the war, Ms. Soskin never saw a ship being built, as she often relays in her ranger talks. But she vividly remembers the night of July 17, 1944, when an enormous munitions explosion at Port Chicago, about 25 miles from the shipyards, killed 320 people, about two-thirds of them Black enlisted men who had been relegated to the dangerous work. (One of the worst home-front disasters of the war, it helped spur the desegregation of the military.)

Earlier that day, she and her husband had hosted a group of Black servicemen (who were excluded from the segregated U.S.O.) at a dance party. Were any of them among those killed, she still wonders?

And even after telling the story umpteen times in her ranger talks, Ms. Soskin seems freshly shocked at what she learned much later: The Black enlisted men were buried in a segregated military cemetery.

“I didn’t know how they pulled the Black bodies out from the white bodies,” she said. “And where would I have gone?”

After the war, she and Mel went into business for themselves, selling “race records” that white stores wouldn’t touch, operating a makeshift store out of a window cut in the wall of their Berkeley garage. In 1952, as the business boomed, they moved to Walnut Creek, a seemingly idyllic and affluent white suburb east of the hills.

They had bought the land via a white friend and, when they moved, they initially received threats. When Ms. Soskin learned that a fundraiser at the local elementary school would include a blackface number performed by the teachers and administrators, she confronted the principal, then sat in the front row, crying the whole time.

Later, she became active in social justice causes through the Unitarian Universalist Church, participated in antiwar protests, raised money for the Black Panthers and served as a delegate for George McGovern at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, representing the very neighbors who had initially rejected her.

But she says she hadn’t intended to be a trailblazer. “I became an activist,” she said, “simply because of who I was.”

In her memoir, Ms. Soskin writes of the struggles of her light-skinned father, who initially couldn’t get a job in California “because he wasn’t Black enough for the railroads and he wasn’t white enough to be white.” And she has been open about the realities of being a Black woman in predominantly white spaces who often found herself, as she has put it, “on a bridge interpreting one side for the other.”

In the early 1960s, as an isolated young mother of four in suburbia, she started playing guitar and writing songs (sometimes while ironing). It was a way of dealing with her deteriorating marriage and what she describes as a mental breakdown, but also a vehicle for her evolving political and racial consciousness.

The internet is awash with her interviews, but her music is harder to find. During my visit, her daughter Di’ara played a recording of a much younger Betty singing on a local radio program.

The first song, “Little Boy Black,” she explains on the recording, was written during “a very angry Black period,” when she was “deeply involved in Black nationalism.” Her voice is whispery and sweet, the lyrics biting.

As the tape rolled into a second song, a delicately jazzy Black-is-beautiful meditation called “Ebony, the Night,” Ms. Soskin’s eyes welled with tears as we listened. She had passed up various offers to start a professional career, she said. And after she moved to Berkeley in the early 1970s and married Bill Soskin, an eminent psychology professor, she put her songs away in a box.

If there was a moment when her full self came back out of the box, she says, it was 1987, when her father and two ex-husbands died within three months of each other.

“I had always been defined by the men in my life,” she said. “I was devastated. Then, all of a sudden, I stepped out and I’ve been spinning around in space ever since. I didn’t really know who I was until then.”

A few years earlier, as Mel’s health declined, she had taken over Reid’s Records, rescuing it from the verge of bankruptcy. (It closed permanently in 2019.) She became a force in the community, advocating new housing and other efforts to revive the then-blighted area.

Next came the job with the state legislator and, through that, the park, and the chance to wage what she has called “a federally funded revolution” from the visitor center’s basement theater.

Ms. Soskin has often spoken of the power of putting on the park ranger uniform — today, less than seven percent of National Park Service personnel are Black — and the message that seeing her in it sends to little girls of color, and others who might not see the national parks as inclusive of them.

“So many opportunities are tied to uniforms,” she said. “Uniforms have dictated so much of what Black people were.”

Over her fireplace hangs a painting of her maternal great-grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, who was born enslaved in 1846 and died three years after World War II, at 102. Leontine had worked as a midwife, as well as an assistant to a circuit-riding doctor who came through St. James Parish, La., every three months, when she would hang a white towel in front of houses where attention was needed.

For all her accolades, Ms. Soskin sees herself, like Leontine, as another “helper,” dedicated to “draping symbolic ‘white towels’ over imaginary gateposts.”

And what would she like her own great-grandchildren to remember about her?

“That she was honest,” she said. “The only way for me to really be able to live in this world is to deal with it truthfully.”