Some information gained from an interview with Journalist Farai Chideya who is a former NPR news host, author of The Episodic Career, and the journalism program officer at the Ford Foundation.
I have been so very inspired by this lady. I hope you enjoy a little of her story. Please, watch the clip at the end. She is a truly awesome lady.
“In my younger years, I aspired to changing the world. Then reality kicked in, and I settled for 500 square feet.”
Betty Reid Soskin is the nation’s oldest park ranger and has received a number of accolades, including a presidential coin from President Barack Obama at the 2015 National Tree Lighting Ceremony. She also was named among Glamour Magazine’s 2018 Women of the Year. Barely five feet three inches tall, she is sylphlike and strong. When she walks, she leans slightly forward, as if facing a headwind, and strides with speed and purpose. Betty never planned to be a ranger. She got the job at the young age of 85.
Betty Charbonnet, was born in 1921, in Detroit, Michigan, to Dorson Louis Charbonnet and Lottie Breaux Allen, both natives of Louisiana. Her father came from a Creole background, and her mother from a Cajun background. Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery in 1846. She spent her early childhood living in New Orleans, until a hurricane and flood destroyed her family's home and business in 1927, when her family then relocated to Oakland, California.
During World War II she worked as a file clerk for Boilermakers Union A-36, a Jim Crow all-black union auxiliary. Her main job was filing change of address cards for the workers, who moved frequently. Working at that all-black union hall during World War II and then briefly in an all-white branch of the Air Force (they didn’t realize she was black when they hired her), Betty saw stories like these firsthand, becoming, as she puts it, “a primary source” from the time.
She dated Jackie Robinson, co-founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley with her first husband, served as a “bag lady” (delivering cash) for the Black Panthers. In June 1945, She and Mel founded Reid's Records in Berkeley, California, a small black-owned business specializing in Gospel music. They moved to Walnut Creek, California in the 1950s, where their children attended better public schools and an alternative private elementary and middle school called Pinel. The family encountered considerable racism, and she and her husband were subject to death threats after they built a home in the white suburb.
She became active in the Mount Diablo unitarian Universalist Church and the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association. During the 1960’s she was a well known song writer for the Civil Rights Movement.
She was divorced from Mel Reid in 1972 and in 1978 when Mel’s health and finances declined, she took over the management of the music store, which enabled her to become even more active in civic matters and was a prominent community activist. Reid’s Records is still in business as of May 2018.
She married William Soskin, a research psychologist and professor at the University of California in Berkeley. Here she hobnobbed with the leaders of the human potential movement as a faculty wife with her second husband. She used her connections as a faculty wife to gain more civic power, advocating for racial and economic equity for all Berkeley residents while still running the family store, Reid’s Records.Later she served as a field representative for the California State Assemblywomen, Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock. While serving in those positions she became actively involved in the early planning stages and development of a park to memorialize the role of women on the home front during World War II. Their efforts came to be realized when the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000. This park provided a site where future generations could remember the contributions of women to the war effort, lest they be forgotten and archived in the dust annals of history.
She reflected on her own role in planning for the park's creation, and on how she brought her personal recollections of the conditions for African American women working in that still segregated environment to bear on the planning efforts, she has said that, often, she "was the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that … what gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering.” She also sparked additions to the formal narratives: the 120,000 people of Japanese descent placed in internment camps by the government; the 320 sailors and workers, 202 of them black men, who died in the explosions at nearby Port Chicago. “So many stories,” Betty muses, “all but forgotten.”
As of 2019, Soskin is employed at the park as a park ranger with the National Park Service, and conducts park tours and serves as an interpreter, explaining the park's purpose, history, various sites, and museum collections to park visitors. She has been celebrated as "a tireless voice for making sure the African-American wartime experience – both the positive steps toward integration and the presence of discrimination – has a prominent place in the Park's history."
Park Ranger Soskin has said, commenting on her life in 2015 at the age of 93: "Wish I'd had [the] confidence when the young Betty needed it to navigate through the hazards of everyday life on the planet. But maybe I'm better able to benefit from having it now – when I have the maturity to value it and the audacity to wield it for those things held dear."
Soskin suffered a stroke while working at the park in September 2019 and returned to work in January 2020.
Soskin’s historical talks at the park museum’s small theater routinely sell out, and she has become what she calls with some surprise “a D-list celebrity.” At barely five feet tall and barely 90 pounds, Soskin’s power comes from her personal history and from her willingness to talk about it plainly and honestly, not mincing words. She talks quietly and without rancor, but with an iron will. As far as Soskin is concerned, it is way past time to set the record straight about black life in white America.
Power. That is what Betty’s life has always been about. The power of self-determination, of imagination, of civic engagement—and of art, beauty, and love. It was a power that ripened within her with every decade of her life, including the times she felt that she was broken, like early on, when she was the mother of two young children and the family received death threats for being the only black family in the neighborhood. Or more recently, in 2016, when a man broke into her home and stole her presidential coin. (When she caught him in the act, he punched her. So she reached up his “trousers,” as she calls them, and squeezed the hell out of his crown jewels. He fled, and in a few weeks, Betty healed and went back to work to great fanfare, and President Obama send her a replacement!) “Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever learned,” she says, “I’m using all of that stuff right now. And all the women that reside in me are now operative.”
In 2018 Betty also began sharing her own story. She published a memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom, which traces her roots back to her great-grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, who was born into slavery in Louisiana in 1846 and lived until she was 102. Her families’ lives, Betty says, “stretch from Dred Scott to Black Lives Matter.” Her long view of history—brutally honest and fiercely optimistic—is what draws people to her speeches, both at the park and at her numerous engagements. But what keeps listeners enthralled is hearing a woman who speaks extemporaneously and inclusively about America in its fullness. She also offers a blueprint on how not to despair about our times. “Democracy has been experiencing these periods of chaos since 1776. They come and go,” she says. “And it’s in those periods that democracy is redefined.” When everything seems to be crumbling, we can remold and reset, she believes: “History has been written by people who got it wrong, but the people who are always trying to get it right have prevailed. If that were not true, I would still be a slave like my great-grandmother.”
For her service Betty has been awarded the Silver Service Medallion by the National WWII Museum, and President Barack Obama presented her with a coin with the presidential seal. There are two documentaries in the works about her life: a half-hour film for the Rosie the Riveter Trust and a long form documentary that prominently features Betty’s music (her powerful and often painful lyrics about race in America, sung with her delicate voice, have brought comparisons to Nina Simone) alongside her life of activism. She worked for civil rights during Freedom Summer, was active against the Vietnam War, helped with faith-based racial healing work in the Unitarian Universalist church, and became a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in support of George McGovern.
“I know I’m in my final days,” says Betty. “I am so aware that if I don’t get it right this time, I can’t ever have time to do it again.” In many people’s mouths this would be a lament. In Betty’s it is a paean to the power of the present. “Everything in my life has to be truthful and meaningful,” she says, “because I don’t have time for foolishness.” After all, she says, “we do not know who is powerful in the moment.” Only history can tell us that.
Please enjoy this 7 minute clip of Betty from a YouTube recording.