When Betty Reid Soskin speaks, you can’t help but listen. The oldest full-time park ranger in the United States, Soskin has a compelling presence and captivating voice, not to mention 94 years worth of stories.
Soskin’s path to the National Park Service is unique, or as she says, “accidental.” She didn’t grow up going to national parks, and first became aware of plans for a waterfront national historical park in Richmond, California while working for a state assemblywoman in the 1990s. The proposed park was to focus on exploring and honoring the efforts and sacrifices of American civilians on the World War II home front. As she began attending meetings regarding the project, Soskin realized she could offer a perspective that might otherwise be left out – that of a young black woman who worked as a clerk in a segregated boilermakers union during the war.
Rosie the Riveter Word War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000, and though named after Rosie, an emblem of the working white woman whom Soskin doesn’t identify with, Soskin’s influence can be found throughout the park. At 85, she became an interpretive ranger with the park service and has been sharing WWII-era stories with rapt visitors ever since.
At 94, Soskin is as plugged in to contemporary issues as she is rooted in history. The global population has nearly quadrupled since her great-grandmother was born into slavery in 1846, and she can’t help but worry about the impacts of climate change on the planet that her grandchildren will inherit. “We can’t afford the flat Earthers,” she says, referring to those who reject well-established scientific truths. “We have to push past them.”
Tell me a little about yourself, where you grew up, and how you ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Well, I came here as a six-year-old in 1927 as a result of the floods in New Orleans, Louisiana. I grew up in East Oakland, graduated from Castlemont High School. My childhood and adolescence were spent during the Great Depression, so I was not familiar with the national parks at all. I wouldn’t have been. Vacations were the time when school was out. Family trips were not possible. So that whole concept – it wasn’t until another generation, my children, [that we] were able to experience family trips. But, at that time, I had not yet discovered the national parks.
I guess my first park was Yosemite. And that was when my children were very young. So I’m sort of an accidental ranger.
You played an instrumental role in getting the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park established. Could talk about that process and what inspired you to take on that task?
That’s something that I only recognize in retrospect. I know now that my work has helped to shape a national park, and that’s incredible. But at the time it was happening, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I was simply participating in something that gradually grew in importance to me and to the parks. But I don’t think I had necessarily recognized that as being something that I would have done in advance. I don’t think I’d have felt qualified to do such a thing. I think it’s only in looking back over those years that I’m seeing my influence all around me in the park. And I’m awed by that. It’s almost like I see myself as a third person. It’s hard to conceive that that would have happened. But it’s rather accidental – I wouldn’t know how to do what I have done.
Practically speaking, what jump-started this process for you?
I was working as a field representative for a member of the California State Assembly. I was largely responsible for representing my assemblywoman [Dion Aroner] at civic meetings, and sitting in on conferences in her place, and when the park presence became obvious, it was in that role that I was attending those meetings. And it morphed into something more, partly because of my race. I was offering an alternative voice to people who were ready to hear it. I think that maybe that’s the most important role I filled at the time. I was one of the untold stories in a history that had been experienced too fast for anybody to learn the lessons that were involved in it.
Sitting in those meetings, my role began to change. I found myself listened to intently, much more so than I felt my words would warrant, except that I began to respect even myself after a while. My words became more weighty as I found them listened to. I’m not sure I was saying anything new, but I was daring to say truth to people who were ready to hear it, and that turned out to be pretty powerful.
What was the logistical process of getting the park started?
The park was started long before I noticed it, so I’m not even sure how I can speak to that. I came in in the middle of a movie.
They say it takes 20 years to develop a national park, and we’re not even at the end of that process yet. The park is still developing. But it was at a very, very different stage when I came in. It was malleable. It was still trying to figure out what it was. Because each urban national park is cut from whole cloth. There are no models for any of them, and this one was no exception. I think that it could have wound up being a bumper sticker, you know, “We can do it!”
And instead, we have over the years layered the complexity back in. I think that if I’ve made a contribution, it was toward that end. That stories of the Japanese American internment, stories of the Port Chicago explosion, stories of African American migration, stories of women’s emancipation all sort of had equal weight during that period, but history had not dealt with them in that way. Over time we were able to layer back in that complexity, which I think enriched us all.
What role do you think that national historical parks, like this one, play within the National Park System, which is perhaps better known for its role in conserving natural places?
The parks are so varied. I mean, the places that are inspired by John Muir, the environmental parks, are amazing. There are places that celebrate the industrial age. There are places, like Edmund Winston Pettus Bridge, [a National Historic Landmark] where the fire hoses and dogs were turned on black people trying to get to Montgomery, which are shameful places, painful.
I saw for the first time the Frederick Douglass [National Historic Site], [while] on a trip in December to Washington. I didn’t realize the grandeur of that home in Anacostia, overlooking Washington, DC. This man who was an escaped slave, who was an advisor to President Lincoln, lived in a 12-bedroom house – I mean, who’d have guessed it?
So, there are so many parks with so many messages. We can go back and almost retrace our history through the national parks system. That’s not what they were meant to do, but at this point, having 410 [sites] means that we can revisit any era in our history.
The National Park Service has struggled to draw a diverse public to the parks, and has recently launched several efforts to that end. What has your experience been with attendance and diversity at the Rosie the Riveter Park?
I think that my own lateness in coming to the national parks is certainly reflected in the black community. I’m not sure how to come at that question, because I think that I’ve been aware since I’ve been with the national parks of how hard the national park system is working to correct that. We are now attracting more people of color, that’s true, but not nearly as many locally as I think I’d like to see.
My sense of myself at 94 is of being an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe.
Two years ago I was invited to do the keynote speech for the Women’s Day celebration at Molten Field at Tuskegee [Airmen National Historic Site], which is the home of the Tuskegee airmen. And that was the first time I’ve ever seen all of the rangers being people of color. The same trip, I was able to get to the Martin Luther King Jr. [National Historic Site] in Atlanta, and all of the rangers, all the staff, were pretty much African American. So that gave me a whole different picture of the national park system, because out here, it’s an exception [to have African American rangers].
I think the National Park Service is really trying earnestly to face that conundrum. It’s only the people with the leisure time and the financial resources who can visit many of the parks. But there is a growing awareness within the black community of the advantages [of visiting the parks]. I have seen people who are home schooling their children who are traveling all over the United States visiting parks and using them the way they ought to be used – but they’re all Whites. I’ve not yet seen African Americans at that level. But I think that that’s coming.
What about urban parks, like this one. Do you think that these parks can help increase access?
Oh yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Because they validate us [people of color] in a way that nothing else can, because of the lag between how long it takes for this history to get into [school] curriculum.
What do you find most inspiring about your work with the parks?
Oh God, that I would answer differently depending upon what time of day you asked. This morning, for instance, I spent in a Skype session talking to people gathered at the annual flower show in Philadelphia, along with a panel of two other women. Just to be technologically connected to a group in Philadelphia, and I’m looking at them on the screen of an iPad in an office in Richmond, California, is awe-inspiring to me.
[Recently], I was a guest at a thousand-member dinner at the Union Square Hilton in San Francisco, because the boilermakers wanted to pay me a tribute – the boilermakers for whom I worked as a lowly file clerk in 1942! And they send a stretch limo to pick me up in Richmond. I was absolutely stunned. And I wondered today when I came in to work, whether I could still bad-mouth the boilermakers, because they’ve apologized. The story is still valid, but can you imagine?
There are times like that night – it was raining when we came out of the hotel at 9 o’clock. The limo was standing there. There was, I think, a half block between me and the driver, and people had gathered in the rain on the sidewalk to see what celebrity was coming out of the hotel, and it was only me. I felt like an April Fools joke! I giggled all the way home!
I don’t know if you can appreciate the wonder of that.
It sounds amazing.
It was absolutely, totally amazing.
How did your experience differ from the typical Rosie the Riveter experience during WWII?
My experience at that time was in the context of a very different world. I was restricted to changing addresses on 3x5 file cards. It was before I had enough awareness of myself to know that I was worth more than that. I felt lucky at 20, even for that role, because it meant I wasn’t taking care of white people’s children or white people’s homes.
It’s hard for me now to get back into that mindset.
I feel like I’ve lived many lives. And on that escalator of those lives, I have ended up so much higher than that 20-year-old girl could have dreamed possible. So there is a level at which I feel really very fortunate.
Are there other parts of your work that you find challenging?
No. I think that I’m living an enviable place in my life at this point. I’m not sure I could improve on anything.
That’s good to hear. What would you like to see from the national parks in the next 10 years, or the next 100 years?
Well, I won’t see whatever happens!
What do you hope will happen, then?
Since I’ve lived my life in a constant state of surprise, it’s very hard for me to project outward, because I really, really am not a planner. I really wake up every day to a new day, and reinvent whatever I was working on yesterday. But I don’t really look ahead.
My sense of myself at 94 is of being an evolving person in an evolving nation in an evolving universe. I don’t know where we’re going. My fear is that we won’t make the corrections fast enough, and that’s scary, because I have grandchildren to leave behind. I’m not sure where the National Park Service will be, but I think, as an agency, it’s in the very best position to affect where we come out, because it’s in these [protected] places, especially the contemplative places, where we have a place to develop and to think. And that maybe wasn’t what initiated the parks in the first place. But I think it may be what will save us. Everything else, I think, will grow from that. And I think that to the extent that the National Park Service begins to recognize that, that we will then save ourselves.
And when you speak about the corrections that we need to make, are you referring to climate change?
Absolutely. I think that my great-grandmother, who has meant so much to me as a guide over the years, was born into a world population of less than 2 billion in 1846. And only four generations later, I am in a world population of seven-and-a-half billion people. To [believe] that we would not as human beings have affected the planet that we are living on is foolhardy. And I think we can’t afford the flat Earthers. We have to push past them. Because if we are going to save ourselves, it’s because we’ve recognized what we have done. And the National Park Service has a large role to play in that.
I read somewhere that you wear your uniform out most places you go in public. Is that accurate?
Not really. But I do feel that wearing my uniform is really important, especially in an area where there aren’t that many black rangers. I feel that every time I’m on an escalator or an elevator or in a lobby anywhere and children of color see me, that I’m announcing a career path that they might not be aware of. And that that is an extremely important part of my job – just being in public in my uniform and making that unspoken bid to younger people. Yeah, my uniform is very important to me.
You are the oldest active ranger in the park system. What drives you to keep coming every day?
Oh, I plan to go straight from the park to the cemetery. I have no intention of retiring. I keep asking the superintendent, “Have you had the What are we going to do with the old lady? meeting yet?” And they keep saying, “Not yet Betty.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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