When asked how it feels to be 100 years old, Betty Reid Soskin gave a subtle shrug, smiled and said: “The same way I felt at 99.”
Seated in the study of her apartment in Richmond, Calif., dressed proudly in her park ranger uniform, Soskin reflected on her life.
When it comes to sharing her story, Soskin is not shy. As a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, she spends her days recounting her rich and complicated history, in the hope that her firsthand account will resonate with people, and encourage them to share their own stories.
“I think everyone’s story is very important. There is so much diversity,” Soskin said. “It’s in that mix that the great secret of a democracy exists.”
It wasn’t until 21 years ago, though, that Soskin truly started telling her own tale — and it happened by coincidence. While working as a field representative for a California assemblyman, Soskin attended a meeting with planners from the National Park Service.
They were organizing the development of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, created in 2000 to honor Americans on the home front, who worked in various industries across the country to bolster the war effort.
The park paid homage to Rosie the Riveter, a pop-culture icon, symbolizing civilian women who worked in shipyards and factories — assuming the vacated jobs of men — during the war. But the depiction of a red-bandana-wearing White woman didn’t speak to Soskin’s own experience on the home front as a Black woman in segregated America, she said.
During the war, Soskin worked as a file clerk in a segregated union, Boilermakers Auxiliary 36.
“Black women were not freed or emancipated in the workforce,” she said in a 2015 interview with The Washington Post. “Unions were not racially integrated and wouldn’t be for a decade. They created auxiliaries that all Blacks were dumped into. We paid dues but didn’t have power or votes.”
Sitting in that meeting with the National Park Service planners as the only Black person in the room, she realized something: “The history, as I had lived it, was nowhere in sight — not one minute of it.”
Soskin decided to change that. She became a consultant to the park in 2003, and a park ranger in 2007 at the age of 85. Sharing her story with as many people as possible, she decided, was her way of reclaiming her history, and that of countless others whose tales have gone untold.
She’s become known for saying: “What gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.”
So she made it her mission to stay in the proverbial room — which, in her case, was in the park’s visitor center, where she has sat on a stool countless times, sharing her story with a room full of strangers.
When she recounts her history, “something comes alive in me,” she said.
Tom Leatherman, the park’s superintendent, said Soskin has had a profound impact on the park.
“She has been fundamental to us being able to tell a more complete story,” he explained. “She has become a symbol of how we can do a better job of incorporating stories that haven’t been shared before.”
Soskin has propelled the park, Leatherman added, to seek other stories of people who have been marginalized and ensure that they are heard — including voices that are Latinx, Native American, Japanese American and LGBTQ.
During her ranger talks, Soskin encourages audience members to “always ask questions,” she said. “If I was still asking the same questions that I was asking 10 years ago, I would be showing no growth at all.”
The content of her presentations is dictated, in large part, by what visitors want to know. Often Soskin speaks of her upbringing in a tightknit Cajun-Creole family and her experiences with racial discrimination growing up in Oakland, Calif.
After the war, she and her first husband opened a music store, where they sold “race records” — music that was by and for people of color. Black artists didn’t record music with major record labels until the 1920s.
Music has always played an important role in Soskin’s life, she said. Not only does she appreciate listening to it, but she also enjoys producing it.
She started writing songs in the 1960s, “at a point in my life when I was having trouble trying to figure out where I was going,” she recalled. “I found that I could sing things that I couldn’t say.”
Over the years, Soskin — who has four children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild — wore many hats: mother, musician, civil rights activist, antiwar advocate and finally, park ranger. Her most recent role is what pushed her into the national spotlight.
Just like that, “someone dropped a uniform on the life that I was already leading,” Soskin said.
That uniform has become a natural appendage to her 5-foot-3-inch frame. Wearing it, she said, feels right.
“Little girls that see me in uniform see possibility. They have a feeling there’s an option open to them that they wouldn’t have known otherwise,” she said. “I think that’s why I wear my uniform with such pride.”
Since becoming a ranger, Soskin was awarded the Silver Service Medallion by the National WWII Museum; she was presented with a commemorative coin from President Barack Obama; and she has written a memoir called “Sign My Name to Freedom,” which is being made into a documentary.
“I know that the people who are honoring me now are such important people, and I have no idea what anyone sees in me,” Soskin said shyly. Either way, “I like it.”
Her most recent accolade came just in time for her 100th birthday: A middle school was renamed after her.
“I didn’t know that would mean so much, except that it does, because I think that it means that I will go forward into history along with all the other people,” she paused to wipe a tear, “who have tried to make a difference.”
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