Reviving History - Betty Reid Soskin unearths some of Richmond’s otherwise forgotten WWII stories
By Matt Larson
Is it ever too late to start a new career? Betty Reid Soskin, Interpretive Park Ranger for the National Park Service, got the job when she was 85. Now, at 97, she is the eldest park ranger in the country and is subsequently becoming a household name.
Three to five times per week she educates visitors of the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, sharing stories of WWII that would otherwise be forgotten. These stories leave visitors fascinated, shocked, inspired…
“Becoming a ranger was not my intention,” Betty recalled. “I never dreamed of any such thing.” As a field representative for California State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, Betty’s job was to sit in on planning meetings for a new national park commemorating the WWII home front in Richmond. The stars had aligned, as she was part of that very home front effort back in the 1940s.
“I never did see a ship under construction, I never did see a ship being launched. I was a 20-year-young clerk, and a woman of color, in a segregated Jim Crow union hall,” she expressed. “I didn’t have any sense of being a part of anything, really. But I have that sense now.”
Of all the boomtowns that developed amidst the WWII effort, Richmond was selected for this park because only here were there enough still-standing structures through which to properly interpret the history. Betty, in the right place at the right time, noticed pretty quickly that something important was missing: “The structures that would have told my story, the African-American story, had been long ago torn down.”
Betty was presented with an extraordinarily unique opportunity to singlehandedly preserve some of America’s most transformative history, and she’s still doing it to this day. “I’ve been able to help create a new national park by virtue of the fact that I happen to be a primary resource for the time being celebrated by this particular park.” she said. “That’s a rather rare thing to be.”
Rosie the Riveter represents an immensely important part of our history, but Betty knew of many other stories, beneath the surface of common knowledge, that should be included as well. “The story is so complex, and so forgotten,” she informed us, citing the 120,000 Japanese—70,000 of which were American citizens—who found themselves in internment camps; and the Port Chicago explosion that vaporized two Kaiser ships losing 320 lives, an event which is considered to have helped launch the Civil Rights Movement.
“There were so many stories that had been all but forgotten,” Betty lamented. “This national park allows us to go into that history and bring it back to life.”
Another of those stories is that of Henry Kaiser, the man responsible for the Kaiser Shipyards that built and launched 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months, thus turning the course of the war around and bringing it to an end. “That contribution, I don’t think, has really had its full say in the story of Richmond,” she claimed, not to mention his impacts on social reform…
“Kaiser did serve as a social reformer by virtue of importing a workforce of 98,000 black and white southerners for his shipyards; people who wouldn’t be sharing drinking fountains, schools, hospitals, housing—any kind of public accommodations—for another 20 years back in their places of origin,” Betty explained. “He would bring them together to build those ships. They had to adapt and conform, because there was no time to take on a broken social system; by so doing, they accelerated the rate of social change and planted the seeds that would grow into the civil rights revolution 20 years later in the ‘60s.” That’s just one of Betty’s examples of another important legacy, in addition to women’s rights, that evolved from WWII.
Barely scratching the surface here of Betty’s life and wisdom, we strongly urge you to attend one of her programs at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, located at 1414 Harbour Way South, Ste. #3000. Reservations must be made far in advance. Call (510) 232-5050 x0 or visit nps.gov/rori. We also urge you to visit Betty’s very active blog at cbreaux.blogspot.com to read more of her unparalleled journey. In recent years she’s been honored on the same dais as John Legend, Kamala Harris, and President Obama.
“I’m still having first-time experiences at 97,” she exclaimed. “I can scarcely wait to get out of bed in the morning! I can’t guess what my life would be even six months from now, because that life is still unfolding. And that life is good.”