Betty Reid Soskin – A historic lady.
Enrichmond was honored to be invited to the Maggie L. Walker Historical Site to meet Betty Reid Soskin, the world’s oldest Park Ranger from Richmond, California. Soskin currently works at the National Parks Service’s Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront National Historical Park. Her life-long commitment to the historic site began when she was first employed as a clerk in the Boilermakers Auxiliary 36 Union Hall during World War II.
Soskin’s historic perspective was born from the practice of segregating employees based upon race/color. To illustrate her experience, she presented the ‘official’ park service video describing the contribution of the historic shipyard to America’s success during WWII. The last line of the video ran something like “it was the greatest coming together of Americans in history, and it was the greatest time in America”. Betty stated that while this may have been the history of many white Americans, it was not the experience for any other race at that time.
As Betty states, the largest and most efficient shipyard in the Richmond, California area was the Kaiser Shipyard. This shipyard was created by Henry J. Kaiser who revolutionized mass production. By the end of WWII Kaiser had produced 747 ships at a rate of one ship every four days. The production process at the shipyard cut the standard production time by two-thirds and at a quarter of the cost. Mr. Kaiser was actively involved in recruiting people to fill factory spots and he mainly recruited African Americans and women. The park video has you believe that there was no discrimination in Richmond, California or Kaiser’s shipyard during this time. But, Soskin recalls a very different experience.
Betty’s perspective is extremely interesting. Her great-grandmother was a slave. Betty was the first person in her family to not be a domestic servant when she was hired as a clark at Kaiser’s shipyard. Betty noted, during her time at the Boilermakers Auxiliary Union Hall she never saw one white person in the facility. She thought the only people working on the ships were black. It was not until later in life that she realized that this not the case and that the place she served as a clerk was segregated.
Currently, Betty works only a few days per week as a volunteer to share her historic and valuable perspective to park-goers. Betty’s story and the Homefront movement are valid, important, and must be told. We will leave you with her closing comment on the park video, “It took me 90 years on this earth to understand [other Riveters] remember it this way. I remember it differently. And that is okay”.