The Oldest National Park Ranger on Being Black in the Bay Area
By Lexi Pandell
Betty Reid Soskin is most famous as the oldest national park ranger in the United States. But she has lived many lives.
The great-granddaughter of a woman born into slavery, Soskin moved with her family to a close-knit black community in East Oakland at age six. She says if she had graduated from Castlemont High School in the years before World War II, there likely would have been just two opportunities open to her: “Either in agriculture or as a domestic servant. I was a child of a servant generation. That would have been my future.” Instead, she has spent her life in entrepreneurialism, government, and education.
Today, the 92-year-old ranger at the Rosie The Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park is a local celebrity in Richmond, a city not much older than her.
I got in touch with Soskin to ask this amazing woman a few questions about growing up and living in the Bay Area and being a national park ranger.
What was life like during WWII for you and your first husband, Mel?
Mel graduated as a star athlete from Berkeley High School and played halfback for the University of San Francisco. He played with the Pacific Coast [Professional Football] League for the Oakland Giants just before the establishment of the NFL. He was in his senior year at USF when the war started. He volunteered for the Navy, and the only thing that a black man could do in the Navy at the time was cook. He was horrified. He had volunteered to fight for his country and, being a red-blooded athlete, this was what he was determined to do. So he refused and had to appear before a panel. They determined he was sincere and gave him an honorable discharge. Because he was light skinned, they said he should have joined as a white man. So three days after he was inducted into the Navy, he was back home in Berkeley. He took that story to his grave. He felt he failed his country.
Similarly, I worked for the Air Force. I had been working as an office staff and transferred from San Francisco to the East Bay, where they needed me. But, only a few days later, they discovered that I was not white. The only work colored people could do was in the canteen or restrooms. I was told that my supervisor had talked to the people in my section and they were “willing to work with me. But I asked, “Will they be willing to work under me when it comes time for me to me elevated in my status?” I, too, walked out on the government. I went to Richmond as a clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union hall.
Eventually, we found ourselves in Berkeley, and we opened a little record shop in Sacramento Street in Berkeley. Mel was working in the recreation department as a playground director in the day, working in the Richmond shipyards at night. I was behind the counter in a converted garage in our duplex. We had our records in orange crates and money in a cigar box as our cash register. Reid’s Record Store is now in its 69th year. It’s run by my youngest son.
And, eventually, you moved out to Walnut Creek?
We saved our money and built a house in the suburbs in 1953. We were the second black family in the valley. It was a tumultuous, chaotic, threatening time. We had two children and one on the way, and we were young. The suburbs were white only, but we didn’t accept that. We thought we had a perfect right to live where we wanted to. We got an architect who saw no reason why he shouldn’t design a house for us and a white person purchased the lot for us, believing that once we got the house built it would be all right. We soon began receiving threats.
The first semester when my third grader entered school as the only black child, the fundraiser was a minstrel show. The principal and teachers were all in blackface. That was the state of the country at the time.
When did you leave?
We were there for about 20 years. When my children grew up to be teenagers, it became apparent that I wanted more for my kids. And I needed more. The suburbs simply didn’t seem very real to me. My marriage [to Mel] had ended by that time, so we moved to the other side of the hills. I went to work at the University of California, where I married my second husband who was a research psychologist there.
You came to Richmond to work for Assemblyperson Dion Aroner and, later, Loni Hancock. How did you become involved in the planning of The Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Park?
One of the sites, the Ford Building, was constructed on partially state-owned land, so there was a seat at the planning table for someone from the State of California. I was the only person of color in the room.
As I began to participate in discussions about the past and disclose what no one had any reason to remember but me, I found willing ears. I brought some authenticity to the stories. It also opened the history to me and I began to learn things [about WWII] I did not know when I was 20, which was quite amazing. I left the state and became a consultant to the national parks. When I was 85, I became a full-time ranger.
Why did you decide to become a park ranger?
I didn’t decide to. I sort of morphed into being a park ranger. I don’t think I would have thought it was something I would do, but it seemed all the things I ever lived were leading to this position. I’m using everything I’ve ever known.
Can you tell me about the new permanent exhibits at the park?
They are absolutely amazing. The design team really got it right. The exhibit takes you through the experience of the Second World War and it ends with what happened after the war and the legacy of those years.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the Bay Area over the years?
Henry Kaiser aggressively recruited and brought 98,000 black and white southerners into the Bay Area. There was no time for diversity training or focus groups – what they had to do was adjust. They accelerated social change just negotiating their day-to-day lives. That acceleration of change still extends into the rest of the country from the greater Bay Area, and it’s the legacy that most excites me.
Do people ever ask why you still work as a ranger?
That question comes up on the Internet more than it does directly. When people have experienced my work, they seem to understand why I’m still here. To find primary sources in my age group at this time is pretty rare. So, at 92, I’m fulfilling a role that no one else can at this park – and I have the privilege of working with others to shape a national park. That’s an honor.
All images courtesy of Betty Reid Soskin