Park ranger Betty Reid Soskin joined the National Park Service when she was 84 years old. At 100 years old, she’s the oldest active park ranger in the country. She spent the Covid-19 pandemic giving virtual talks at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park – the park Soskin herself helped plan and develop. After 15 years of telling the story of Black people and people of color on the home front during World War II, Soskin is finally hanging up her iconic “Smoky the Bear” hat.
“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,” Soskin said in a National Parks Service statement earlier this week.
A Living Primary Source
In the early 2000s, when the National Park Service and the City of Oakland, California began planning for a new National Park, an experienced local and state political staffer named Betty Reid Soskin played an active role in the process. Soskin was fiercely interested in the park’s theme, work and life in the U.S. during World War II; she had spent the war years working as a file clerk at the Boilermaker’s A-36 Union hall in one of Oakland’s shipyards.
A-36 was segregated “auxiliary lodge” for Black workers, and other workers of color, who the Boilermaker’s Union blocked from full membership. Soskin’s experience there was very different from that of white women like the iconic wartime poster character Rosie the Riveter.
Once the park opened, Soskin – who was then a California state employee – worked alongside the National Park Service on a research project “to uncover untold stories of African-Americans on the Home Front during World War II.” That work led her to join the National Park Service at the age of 84. She’s been sharing her research and her story with park visitors ever since.
“Being a primary source in the sharing of that history – my history – and giving shape to a new national park has been exciting and fulfilling,” she said.
Home Front History
Soskin, born Betty Reid Allan, arrived in Oakland with her family just before the first bridge spanned the San Francisco Bay. After a massive flood devastated their hometown of New Orleans in 1927, the Allans moved west to join Soskin’s maternal grandfather, a World War I veteran who lived in Oakland, California.
Growing up in Oakland, Soskin watched Amelia Earhart take off to fly around the world – and never return. She was an eyewitness to a deadly ammunition ship explosion in July 1944, while she worked at the Boilermaker’s A-36. Working at A-36 also made Soskin an eyewitness to racism and its impact on workers. Recruiting posters emphasized the need for everyone to do their part for the war effort, but Black workers – along with Latinx, Asian, and other workers – often got fewer opportunities and found themselves openly barred from joining the unions that were supposed to advocate for them.
That experience became part of the story Soskin told visitors to the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park.
“Soskin has been vocal about the negative impact auxiliary lodges had on her personally and on Black union members during the war,” according to a 2021 story in the Boilermaker Reporter, the union’s newsletter for members.
The stories Soskin shared reached the leadership of the modern Boilermakers Union, which has long since desegregated. At a 2021 event, the union’s international president, Newton B. Jones, acknowledged Soskin by name and formally apologized for the union’s past discrimination.
“In her capacity as a National Park Service ranger, Betty not only recounts the history of the Kaiser Shipyards and the women and men who worked there, she tells the story of inequality, bigotry and segregation that existed during those times. She reminds all who listen of the important lessons that history teaches us, so that we can become a better people, better unions and a better America,” said Jones. “On behalf of my organization, I offer Betty and all former Boilermakers who at one time belonged to an auxiliary local, an apology for what must have been a demeaning life experience.”
Soskin’s response, according to the Boilermaker Reporter, included a hug for Newton. “I forgave you [the Boilermakers union] long ago, but I’ve never really had the feeling that we were on the same page until just a few moments ago,” she said. “Thank you very much. Thank you.”
Passion And Urgency
“[Soskin’s] efforts remind us all that we must seek out and give space for all perspectives so that we can tell a more full and inclusive history of our nation,” said National Park Service director Chuck Sams.
The centenarian’s work had a wider impact on how the National Park Service tells stories about racism, marginalization, and discrimination, which are often difficult topics to address and are often omitted in favor of more comfortable generalizations. But Soskin pioneered a different approach.
“Her work has impacted the way the NPS conveys such history to audiences across the United States,” according to a recent press release about her retirement.
According to her co-workers and visitors, Soskin told her story (and the story of many other workers who helped shape the outcome of World War II and the eventual Civil Rights movement in the U.S.) with passion and a sense of urgency. When media outlets interviewed her during the 2013 government shutdown, Soskin expressed what she viewed as an urgent need to get back to sharing history with the public while she could. And when she suffered a stroke in late 2019, she returned to the park within a few months. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she held weekly virtual talks, some of which are viewable on the National Park Service website.
After 100 years of life and 15 years as a park ranger, Soskin worked her last day at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park on March 31. She’ll celebrate her retirement on April 16 in Richmond, California.