This interview was published Wednesday by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior:
With Women’s History Month upon us, we at the Department of the Interior interviewed Betty Reid Soskin, who at 93 is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. Great-granddaughter of a slave and a file clerk in a Jim Crow union hall during World War II, Reid-Soskin began her career with NPS at the age of 85 at Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park and was a driving force behind the park years prior. Between speaking engagements, conducting her bus tours, and giving presentations at the park’s visitors’ center, she found time to share her thoughts about her connections to the park, her past and the future.
Connections to the Park
For those who don’t know, what is the mission of Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park today, and what role do you play as a ranger in the park?
The park strives to collect, preserve and protect the artifacts and stories of Rosie the Riveter and the World War II Home Front experience for the nation. In my role as a ranger, I provide tours of the park, telling my personal World War II story and encouraging others to contribute theirs to the park’s collection of oral histories.
What is your World War II story?
In 1942 I was a 20-year-old file clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union auxiliary — Boilermakers Auxiliary 36. Labor unions were not yet racially integrated and wouldn’t be for another decade, so the unions created all-black unions for workers. When I graduated from high school as a young woman of color, my chances for employment were limited to two — working in agriculture or as a domestic servant. My parents were part of the service workers’ generation. My elder sister worked the first five years of her marriage as half of a domestic team; her husband was a chauffeur, and she was a housekeeper for a white family. Because they lived in, they could save every penny toward the purchase of their first home. This was the pathway into the middle class for black folks. I share that story to show that my job as a clerk in a Jim Crow union hall was a step up; the equivalent of today’s young woman of color being the first in her family to enter college.
Can you tell us how your personal history and a seat at the table led to your role in helping NPS shape what was then a new urban park to your role as a ranger?
I was introduced to the park system in 2000, while working in Richmond, Calif., as a field representative for a member of the State Assembly. That year, planners from NPS gathered in Richmond to figure out just how to shape an experimental urban park that would pay tribute to the home-front workers of World War II and consist of nonfederal sites scattered throughout the city. California owned the land for one of the sites — the historic Ford Assembly Plant — had a seat at the table. That seat was filled by one small field representative of color, me. It was while watching a presentation about the sites that I realized I was the only one who, from memory, recognized that the dozen or more sites that would form the park were sites of racial segregation. I also discovered that the planners from NPS were interested in the untold stories and lost conversations of the history that I represented. For the first time since I was that naive young 20-year-old in that segregated union hall, I was in a position to learn, and share, the rest of the story. In 2003, I left my state job to become a consultant to the park; and in 2007, I became a ranger.
The tours you give as a ranger at the park, “Untold Stories and Lost Conversations,” fill up quickly. Why are people so drawn to them and to you?
We’re booked two months ahead at this point, and are trying to find ways to add more bus tours with other guides. I imagine that my tours are popular because — though I am not a trained historian — my tours are necessarily a way to share my oral history with the public. I tell the story of the African American workers. Even though it is personal, since I was not a part of the migrant labor force, there is enough in common with other people of color to serve as a bridge between races.
This month, in addition to giving your regular tours at the park, you were a keynote speaker at a Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony at the park. What’s a typical day for you?
I work a 5-hour day, five days a week; a good but fairly relaxed schedule that requires little preparation. Since I’m working from memory, my work tends to be “in the moment” and depends upon my ability to respond to questions out of a well that seems bottomless at times. I’m in our theater for the 2 p.m. ranger program every Tuesday and Saturday, and we’ve added another at 11 a.m. on Thursdays. We view a 15-minute film called “Home Front Heroes” that is the story of Richmond’s during the war years when those migrant workers behind a man who’d never built a ship completed 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months! I then do a 45-minute commentary that puts me in context of those years.
Do you consider yourself a Rosie the Riveter, and do you identify with the “Rosies”?
I identify as a ranger, not a “Rosie.” Though it’s interesting that in the shipbuilding industry (in Richmond at least) black “Rosies” were only trained as welders toward the end of the war, late in 1944, “Rosie” is primarily a white woman’s story. I can say, though, from observing all “Rosies” who have visited our park, it is clear that those years were a high point in their lives. They express much pride and often great frustration at having been turned loose at the war’s end for the sake of returning veterans to the workplace.
What else have you discovered through the research you have performed since you have worked for the park; what has surprised you the most?
Discovering the wonder of Henry J. Kaiser — who became my personal hero over time — and the extent to which he changed the American workplace without intending to do so. I do not believe that he was in any way a social reformer, just a smart industrialist for whom race was irrelevant. He knew that he could revolutionize shipbuilding, and he did so unquestionably. He did it under a severely flawed social system and managed to accelerate the rate of change here in this place — and it still radiates out of the Greater Bay Area into the rest of the country to this day. I believe that the seeds sown during those years that produced the civil rights revolution of the 1960s were sown right here in this cauldron of social change.
How have you changed since first becoming a park ranger eight years ago; what important lessons has this park with its many complex stories taught you?
I’ve aged in two important ways since becoming a park ranger: The first: I’ve outlived my rage without losing my passion over the past decade, and that’s a gift! The second, which also took some time, happened after viewing films created for the park. It was the discovery of conflicting truth. There a place where Agnes Moore, a 95-year-old “Rosie” says on the video, “… It was the greatest coming together of the American people that I’ve ever lived through.” For months I found myself cringing in the dark as those words were uttered against a background of dramatic flag-waving, soldiers kissing girls, people parading in the streets. So strange, how could Agnes, whom I know, not know that this was something many of us were outside of, and the more so because we felt shut out? Somewhere along the way that feeling dropped away; and in its place, I found that I could hear that as an honest expression of her reality as she lived it at the time. I found myself able to hear her truth as long as there was a place on the planet where our truths could co-exist. This park became that place. How I wish I’d learned that important lesson earlier in life, maybe in high school. All of it’s true for someone.
You have deep connections to this park. What has it meant to you to have been such an integral part in having helped to shape it?
To be a part of helping to mark the place where that dramatic trajectory of my own life, combined with others of my generation, will influence the future by the footprints we’ve left behind has been incredible. I came to believe, early on, that if we had a place on the planet where we could revisit that era, and note, not by the myths that we’ve made up about it — but by the truth as it was lived by those of us who lived it — we could form a baseline against which to measure how far we’ve come over time. Being a primary source in the sharing of the telling of that history and giving shape to a new national park has been exciting and fulfilling. It has proven to bring meaning to my final years.
Is it true that you always wear your ranger’s uniform?
Yes, I do wear my uniform at all times; because when I’m on the streets or on an escalator or elevator, I am making every little girl of color aware of a career choice she may not have known she had. That’s important. The pride is evident in their eyes, and the opportunities get announced very subtly to those who’ve lived outside the circle of full acceptance.
Connections to the Past — and the Future
You’ve spent the last decade focused on helping the park tell its many complex stories. What would you most like us to know about the other eight decades of your life?
I was born in Detroit, spent my early life in my family’s home in New Orleans, and headed with my family to California at the age of 6, as the result of the great flood of 1927. I come from Spanish, French and African ancestry, but as a result of having lived through the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, I identify as a black woman. My great grandmother was born into slavery in 1846. She lived to be 102. She died in 1948 when I was 27 years old. So I was a grown woman having met my slave ancestor.
What do you think she and your mother would think of the changes you have seen in history?
We have witnessed so much of American history — slavery, reconstruction, World War I, Great Depression, World War II, Martin Luther King Jr., assassinations of the Kennedys, Vietnam, the Moon Landing, the Mars Probe, Sept. 11, Iraq, Iran — I can’t breathe. Add it to the fact that on Jan. 20, 2009, I witnessed — as a seated guest of my state representative, George Miller, with a snapshot of my great-grandmother in my breast pocket — the inauguration of our first African American president in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial for a president whose life was contemporary with my great-grandmother’s. I find it incredible that all of this, and more, happened within the lives of three women who interacted as adults. That’s how fast time goes.
Is it true that you started writing your blog because you were having difficulty tracing the history of the women in your family? How has it evolved over time?
It was while creating a family history for my kids that I learned how difficult it was to trace the women since their names change. They just seem to get lost. There were some fascinating women in my family — people I’d so love to have learned more about, but I couldn’t because of the slave curtain. I vowed to leave behind a record of my own life for my children and theirs, but that was in 2003 — I didn’t dream it would still be going on. What began as a way of preserving the past became the way I process events as they occur. It helps to end my days with a starting place for my tomorrows.
You’ve received many honors in your life, which has meant the most to you?
Honors? I feel at times as if I’ve lived into a time when I get awarded an honor for being able to tie my own shoes! It’s hard to feel worthy, and at times I can only try to ignore the attention and keep my head down. It’s humbling at other times — as recently, when I received from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers a beautiful trophy (crystal!) declaring my little black union Auxiliary 36 as legitimate. It was presented by several (white) unionists who stood with me on the platform and apologized for the union of 1942. That was an amazing evening.
Can you tell us of a time when others tried to make you feel unequal?
I think there is nothing more chilling than to answer my doorbell in my own lovely suburban redwood split-level home in a California valley only to have the caller (usually a male agent) look past me into the room and ask if he can see the “lady of the house.”
Can you tell us how you’ve pushed past many of the boundaries society placed upon you at the time?
For me growth has come by continuing to ask questions. I’ve been many women in the decades that I’ve been given — file clerk in a Jim Crow union hall, housewife and mother, small-business owner, song writer and poet, activist, state field representative, park consultant, and park ranger. I think that over time, I’ve exploded many a stereotype; and though I have not always come out unscathed, I shamelessly have enjoyed doing so, and still do.
What continues to drive you today?
In this latest decade of my life, I feel an increasing sense of urgency, one that rises from the aging process. I’m so aware of the fact that — if I don’t get it right this time — I may not have time to try it again. It means that I step with a sureness now that is new, and that my decisions are well-considered, even though they come from somewhere deep inside my consciousness —effortless at times. I’m not sure how I arrived at this enviable place at this time, but I’m here and my curiosity is still intact, and doors are still opening wide into an unknown future. I only regret that I didn’t have the sense to tap into it before now!
What advice do you have for the younger generation?
This January, my great-grandson entered life as a much-loved little citizen who is carrying the hopes and dreams of a family who needs the support of society in order to gradually unfold the gifts that he may have brought with him into this often troubling world. So the younger generation has been on my mind. I would remind them of the very nature of democracy — it doesn’t stay fixed. They, too, will have to rise to the challenges of their day. Keep asking questions — even if the people around you don’t have the same questions. Don’t let people set limits on you; know you can exceed them. Take your seat at the table. And vote! I learned this early in life, and I’ve been on that path ever since.