By Sara Barnes
Betty Reid Soskin has achieved amazing milestones in her life. One of them has been in her work as the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. But if that weren’t incredible enough, she very recently celebrated a milestone birthday—she turned 100 years old! Soskin is a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, where she specializes in tours. She’s become relatively famous for her tours as and they quickly fill up with people who want to see her speak.
Soskin was 85 years young when she joined the National Park Service and had a full life before that. Born in Detroit on September 22, 1921, Soskin eventually made her way to Northern California and worked as a file clerk during World War II in a segregated unit of the historically all-white Boilermakers union. This came during a time when many women left their homes to enter the workforce, conjuring the Rosie the Riveter image. Soskin, however, never identified with it. “That really is a white woman’s story,” she explained, as Black women had been working outside their homes due to slavery.
Soskin’s life took many turns in the years following WWII. During the Civil Rights era, she became a political and community activist working with the Black Panthers and on antiwar movements. In the year 2000, she was working as a field representative for a California state legislator and was tasked with sitting in on the early planning meetings for the park. During the first meeting, she said that she had a “love-hate relationship” with Rosie the Riveter, as the icon only told one side of a story.
“What gets remembered depends on who is in the room doing the remembering,” is a common refrain for Soskin, and she continued work with the National Park Service on telling the stories of Black Americans during WWII. At first, she was a community liaison, then a seasonal tour guide, and in 2007 she was made a full-time interpretative ranger. “When I became a ranger,” she said, “I was taking back my own history.”
Soskin has been honored for her work with the National Park Service. To celebrate her birthday, the park has created special stamps (one available virtually) and wrote about her contributions in an Instagram post: “Over the past decade and a half, Ranger Betty has shared her experiences as well as the efforts and sacrifices of women from diverse backgrounds living and working on the World War II home front.”
But beyond the recognition from the park, there’s another way that Soskin is leaving a legacy; a Bay Area middle school has been renamed as Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. “Having a school named for me is more than I ever thought of because it means that a number of children will go into the world knowing who I was and what I was doing here,” Soskin shares. “Maybe it will make a difference.”