At 94 years old, Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest living ranger for the National Park Service. She serves as Interpretive Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Today, she works up to five days a week and five hours per day. Her work entails giving two or three presentations in the park theater. She answers emails and requests from her office. She also conducts wildly popular bus tours through the areas that make up the park. She speaks honestly in her presentations about both discrimination and efforts for integration that occurred during WWII. Remarkably, she doesn’t use notes or a guide. Instead, she speaks from her lived experience and personal history. Her pace would be incredibly impressive for someone half her age. Here are eight facts you need to know about this American Shero:
1. She was the great-granddaughter of enslaved Americans.
Soskin was born in Detroit, MI and lived part of her childhood in New Orleans before settling in Oakland, California. Her parents were of Creole and Cajun descent and her great-grandmother was born into slavery in 1846.
2. She was an activist and artist.
In the 1950s, she and her husband were subject to death threats after they built a home in Walnut Creek, California, all-white suburb. She became active in her local Unitarian Universalist Congregation and the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the 1960s, she became a well-known songwriter in the Civil Rights Movement. Check out a song she wrote reposted on her blog here.
3. She was a part of the American Labor Movement.
During World War II, Soskin served as a file clerk for Boilermakers Union A-36, which was an all African American union derivative that formed because segregationist policies allowed the White union to refuse their entry into the ranks.
4. She was a witness to the Port Chicago Disaster.
In 1944, 320 Americans, mostly African American sailors were killed when two ships being loaded with ammunition and bombs suddenly blew up. Soskin’s family hosted sailors who served in the U.S. Navy during that time. Notably, the Port Chicago Disaster led to the Port Chicago Mutiny where 258 African American enlisted personnel refused to return to the disaster site and load ammunition until Navy officials changed load procedures to enhance safety.
5. She helped establish the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park where she currently serves.
Soskin served as a field representative for California Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock. During this time, she became active in the early planning and development of the park set to memorialize women during World War II. As someone who “lived it”, she became a fierce advocate for preserving the history of African American women during World War II. She called attention to the often left out group who played a pivotal role in aiding the war effort while being denied basic rights and continuing to be treated as second class citizens within the country.
6. She is an active blogger.
7. She was honored by President Obama.
She has several interview requests and has received several honors from luminaries. In 2015, President Barack Obama gave Soskin a commemorative coin to honor her as the oldest living park ranger.
8. She survived a vicious attack in July 2016.
On July 1, 2016, Mrs. Reid Soskin awoke to a masked man standing over her bed. The assailant attacked her, ransacked her apartment and stole several things from her including the commemorative coin given to her by President Obama. She survived the attack by escaping to a bathroom and barricading the door until the assailant retreated. After the attack, she received hundreds of letters and emails. A Go Fund Me page was set up for her through the National Park Service that helped her replace some things that were stolen. She was sent a replacement coin with the Presidential Seal from the White House. She was able to come out of the incident with only bruises, but her quick thinking and indomitable spirit kept her alive through the ordeal.
Information attained from:
Betty Reid Soskin, CBreaux Speaks, http://cbreaux.blogspot.com/
Rachel Gillett, “Meet the 94-year-old park ranger who works full-time and never wants to retire”, http://www.businessinsider.com/94-year-old-park-ranger-betty-reid-soskin-interview-2016-8
Richmond Pulse, “Q&A: Nation’s Oldest Park Ranger Cites Outpouring of Support in Healing After Robbery”, http://newamericamedia.org/2016/08/qa-nations-oldest-park-ranger-cites-outpouring-of-support-in-healing-after-robbery.php
About The Author
Rick McCray is a married father of three amazing sons. He is also a proud graduate of Duke University where he holds a BA in History and African/African American History, and Howard University School of Law. He is also a regular commentator on the In The Black podcast. Rick is passionate about our history and helping to educate our community concerning the great contributions of people of color to the world. You can find Rick on Twitter @RealRickMcCray.