When Betty Reid Soskin, 93, was introduced to the park system in 2000, she quickly realized that her personal history had an important role to play in the National Park Service. A new urban park dedicated to the home-front workers of World War II, as well as markers for other relevant sites around the United States, was currently under development and Soskin was brought in to represent a member of the State Assembly.
“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,” Soskin said. “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.”
She eventually left her state job in 2003 and became a park ranger in 2007, at the age of 85. Today, Soskin draws in droves of tourists to the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park located in Richmond, California. But don’t expect to hear tired stories memorized and repeated on command. Soskin shares her own oral history and memories of having grown up in the Jim Crow era. While the Detroit-born ranger hails from Spanish, French, and African ancestry, Soskin said she grew up feeling closest to her African heritage.
“As a result of having lived through the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, I identify as a black woman,” she explained. 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.”
Sorkin has a lived through a world of history and has been busy tracing the history of the women in her family so that her children and grandchildren will have a record of their ancestors. But she doesn’t just spend her days thinking about the past - she also concerns herself with the struggles of the generations that will come after her.
“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,” Soskin said. “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. “
To read her entire story, click here.
(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)