Betty Reid Soskin, 1921

  • Betty-Reid-Soskin-WWP

Woman Category: Academy & EducationWoman Tags: African-American Women, Businesswoman, Singer, and Songwriter

  • HerStory

    A singer, businesswoman, and social activist. The oldest National Park Ranger in the US.

    Betty Charbonnet was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a Cajun and Creole African-American family. Until the age of 6, she grew up in New Orleans, but when the Mississippi River flooded the area in 1927, the family joined the Great Migration and moved to Oakland, California. During World War II, Soskin got a job as a file clerk for the segregated International Boilermakers Union in Richmond, where the Rosie the Riveter historical site is located today.
    After the war, Soskin and her first husband, Mel Reid, lived in Berkeley, California, where they established a record store specializing in Gospel music. A few years later, they relocated to Walnut Creek, California, the only black family in the suburb. There, they often encountered racism and even death threats. Soskin joined the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church. Soon, she became involved with the Civil Rights Movement, serving as a “bag lady” for the Black Panthers and writing songs for and about the cause.
    At the age of 51, she divorced, and not long after, she married William Soskin, a psychology professor. At the time, she became an active member of the Democratic Party, serving as a national convention delegate during the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. In 1978, Soskin took over managing of the store record in Berkeley due to her first husband’s health issues. There, she became a community activist, promoting the interests of the residents and business owners.
    When the National Park Service began building Rosie the Riveter historical site, Soskin, among other “Rosies,” was invited to a presentation. Been the only person of color in the room and the only one who could identify the site as a place of segregation and racism, Soskin was invited to help design the reconstructions and add her perspective as a woman of color to the historical narrative of the war effort. In 2012, at the age of 85, she was appointed as a national park ranger at the site. In this position, she conducts tours and lectures about her experiences as a young black woman working during the war at the segregated union hall. As of 2021, 94 years old Soskin is the oldest National Park Ranger in the US.

    “If we don’t know where we started, we have no way of knowing how far we’ve come.”

    “If we don’t know where we started, we have no way of knowing how far we’ve come.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She dated the baseball player Jackie Robinson.
    • She attended President Obama’s inauguration as a guest of Rep. George Miller.
    • She is the subject of the documentary “No Time to Waste—The Urgent Message of Betty Reid Soskin.”
    • During the government shut-down of 2013, she became a media sensation when appearing on various shows claiming that the legislators wasted her precious time doing her important work as a public educator about African-American history.
    • She has four children.
    • She published an autobiography titled “Sign My Name to Freedom.”
    • In 2020, she returned to her job as a National Park Ranger, a year after suffering a stroke.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * California Woman of the Year (1995)
    * The WAVE award as one of three "Women of Achievement" by GirlSource of San Francisco (2010)
    * A presidential coin from President Barack Obama (2015)
    * The National WWII Museum Silver Service Medallion (2016)
    * The Robin W. Winks Award For Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks (2018)
    * Honorary doctorates from California College of the Arts and Mills College

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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    Celebrate Women’s History Month with INFORUM and a conversation with local and national legend Betty Reid Soskin! At 96, she’s currently the oldest serving career park ranger with the National Park Service—just one chapter in a long life of public service and her active role in the social evolution of the United States.

    Reid Soskin’s remarkable resume ranges from clerking in an all-black trade union during World War II to political activism and songwriting during the Civil Rights Movement, from running a record store to working as a congressional field representative, and, finally, to her work as a historian. When the National Park Service began to plan the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, CA, Reid Soskin played a key role in shaping and designing the park, ensuring that the reality of history—including racism, segregation and sexism—weren’t left out of the narrative. The great-granddaughter of a slave, Reid Soskin’s life spans World War II to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first black president, and her experiences and observations allow for unique insight into our country’s history.

    The ultimate storyteller, she is the lead figure in a forthcoming documentary being made by Rosie the Riveter Trust detailing the African-American experience in the United States from World War II to the present day, and she was featured in a multi-part PBS special. She still regularly draws crowds to the park with her powerful presentations, blogs and writes regularly, and was even invited to officiate the White House Tree Lighting Ceremony with President Obama.

    Join us for insights into Reid Soskin’s full life and the backdrop of history of which she and her work are a vital part to this day.

  • Soskin in 2014. Photo credit - Jim Heaphy @ Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    An article on REI website.
    Wikipedia page.