Betty Reid Soskin
Betty Reid Soskin
September 22, 1921
|Residence||Richmond, California, U.S.|
|Occupation||National Park Service Ranger|
|Employer||National Park Service|
(m. 1943; divorce 1972)
(m. 1978; death 1988)
Betty Reid Soskin (née Charbonnet; born September 22, 1921) is a Ranger with the National Park Service, assigned to the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. At age 97, she is the oldest National Park Ranger serving the United States. In February, 2018, she released a memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom.
Betty Charbonnet was born in 1921 in Detroit to Dorson Louis Charbonnet and Lottie Breaux Allen, both natives of Louisiana. Her father came from a Creole background, and her mother from a Cajun background. Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery in 1846. She spent her early childhood living in New Orleans, until a hurricane and flood destroyed her family's home and business in 1927, when her family then relocated to Oakland, California.
During World War II she worked as a file clerk for Boilermakers Union A-36, a Jim Crow all-black union auxiliary. Her main job was filing change of address cards for the workers, who moved frequently.
In June 1945, she and her then husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid's Records in Berkeley, California, a small black-owned business specializing in Gospel music. They moved to Walnut Creek, California in the 1950s, where their children attended better public schools and an alternative private elementary and middle school called Pinel. The family encountered considerable racism, and she and her husband were subject to death threats after they built a home in the white suburb.
She became active in the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church and the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and in the 1960s became a well-known songwriter in the Civil Rights Movement.
She was divorced from Mel Reid in 1972, and subsequently married William Soskin, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978, after Mel Reid's health and finances had declined, she took over management of the music store, which led to her becoming active in area civic matters and a prominent community activist. Reid's Records is still in business as of May 10, 2018[update].
She later served as a field representative for California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock, and in those positions became actively involved in the early planning stages and development of a park to memorialize the role of women on the Home Front during World War II. Those efforts came to fruition when Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000, to provide a site where future generations could remember the contributions women made to the war effort.
Reflecting on her own role in planning for the park's creation, and on how she brought her personal recollections of the conditions for African American women working in that still segregated environment to bear on the planning efforts, she has said that, often, she "was the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that … what gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering."
As of 2019[update], Soskin is employed at the park as a park ranger with the National Park Service, and conducts park tours and serves as an interpreter, explaining the park's purpose, history, various sites, and museum collections to park visitors. She has been celebrated as "a tireless voice for making sure the African-American wartime experience – both the positive steps toward integration and the presence of discrimination – has a prominent place in the Park's history."
Park Ranger Soskin has said, commenting on her life in 2015 at the age of 93: "Wish I'd had [the] confidence when the young Betty needed it to navigate through the hazards of everyday life on the planet. But maybe I'm better able to benefit from having it now – when I have the maturity to value it and the audacity to wield it for those things held dear."
- California Woman of the Year, California Legislature, 1995
- Builders of Communities and Dreams, National Women’s History Project, 2006
- Cited in "Wherever there's a fight – the history of the ACLU in California" - Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi, 2007
- Attended President Obama's Inauguration as a guest of Rep. George Miller, 2009
- Proclamation honoring her by Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin on behalf of Richmond City Council, 2009
- Received honorary doctorate at California College of the Arts at Spring Commencement, 2010
- Received the WAVE award as one of three "Women of Achievement" by GirlSource of San Francisco, 2010
- The National WWII Museum Silver Service Medallion, at the American Spirit Awards gala, 2016
- Received honorary doctorate of arts and letters at Mills College, 2017
- WWII meant opportunity for many women, oppression for others, by Caroline Zynco, San Francisco Chronicle, September 26, 2007, retrieved March 23, 2011
- Ranger's voice spans East Bay history, by Lee Hildebrand, San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 2010, retrieved March 23, 2011
- Jones, Carolyn (October 16, 2013). "Federal shutdown puts Betty Reid Soskin on hold". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved April 26, 2014.
- "Oldest National Park Ranger Shares 'What Gets Remembered'," NPR Wisdom Watch, May 15, 2014.
- Frankel, Bruce (2010). What Should I Do With the Rest of My Life?: True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-1-101-18596-4.
- Geluardi, John (July 30, 2007). "Park celebrates women's war effort: 'Rosie the Riveter' symbol of those who transcended traditional roles". Oakland Tribune. Retrieved April 26, 2014.
- Personal blog, May 26, 2015.
- Rachel Gillett - "Meet the 93-Year-Old Woman Who Still Works 5 Days a Week and Never Wants to Retire: Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service", AOL Jobs, July 28, 2015. Retrieved 2015-08-09