When asked what it felt like to be 100, Betty Reid Soskin subtly shrugged, smiled and said, “The same way I felt at 99.”
But she’s not just any centenarian: Soskin is the National Park Service’s longest-serving active ranger, and after celebrating her birthday on September 22, she’s still going strong.
Sitting in the office of her apartment in Richmond, Calif., Proudly dressed in her ranger uniform, Soskin reflected on her life.
When it comes to sharing his story, Soskin isn’t shy. As a park warden at Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, she spends her days telling her rich and complicated story, in the hope that her first-hand tale will resonate with and cheer people up. to share their own stories.
“I think everyone’s story is very important. There is so much diversity, ”Soskin said. “It is in this mixture that the great secret of a democracy exists.
It wasn’t until 21 years ago, however, that Soskin really started telling his own story – and it happened by coincidence. While working as a field representative for a California assembly member, Soskin attended a meeting with planners from the National Park Service.
They organized the development of Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park, established in 2000 to honor Americans on the Home Front, who worked in various industries across the country to support the war effort.
The park paid homage to Rosie the Riveter, a pop culture icon, symbolizing the civilian women who worked in shipyards and factories – taking on male vacant jobs – during the war. But the portrayal of a white woman wearing a red bandana did not speak to Soskin’s own experience on the home front as a black woman in a segregated America, she said.
During the war, Soskin worked as a records clerk in a separate union, Boilermakers Auxiliary 36.
“Black women have not been released or emancipated into the workforce,” she said in a 2015 interview with the Washington Post. “The unions were not racially integrated and would not be for a decade. They created auxiliaries into which all blacks were thrown. We paid membership fees, but we had no power or voice.
Sitting in that meeting with the National Park Service planners as the only black person in the room, she realized something: “The story, as I had lived it, was nowhere in sight – no one minute.”
Soskin decided to change that. She became a park consultant in 2003, and a ranger in 2007 at the age of 85. Sharing her story with as many people as possible, she decided, was her way of reclaiming her story, and that of countless others whose stories have gone unnoticed.
She is known to have said, “What you remember is determined by who is in the room remembering. “
So she made it her mission to stay in the proverbial room – which in her case was in the park visitor center, where she has sat on a stool countless times, sharing her story with a room full of strangers.
When she tells her story, “something comes to life in me,” she says.
Tom Leatherman, the park’s superintendent, said Soskin had a profound impact on the park.
“It was fundamental so that we could tell a more complete story,” he explained. “She has become a symbol of how we can do a better job incorporating stories that have never been shared before.”
Soskin pushed the park, Leatherman added, to research other stories of marginalized people and make sure they are heard – including Latin American, Native American, Japanese American and LGBTQ voices.
During her interviews with the rangers, Soskin encourages members of the public to “always ask questions,” she said. “If I kept asking the same questions as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t show any growth at all.”
The content of its presentations is dictated, in large part, by what visitors want to know. Soskin often talks about his upbringing in a tight-knit Cajun-Creole family and his experiences of racial discrimination growing up in Oakland, California.
After the war, she and her first husband opened a music store, where they sold “racing records” – music by and for people of color. Black artists did not record music with major record companies until the 1920s.
Music has always played an important role in Soskin’s life, she said. Not only does she like to listen to it, but she also likes to produce it.
She started writing songs in the 1960s, “at a time in my life when I had a hard time trying to figure out where I was going,” she recalls. “I discovered that I could sing things that I couldn’t say.”
Over the years, Soskin – who has four children, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild – has worn several hats: mother, musician, civil rights activist, anti-war activist and finally, park ranger. Her most recent role is what propelled her to the forefront of the national scene.
Just like that, “someone dropped a uniform on the life I was already leading,” Soskin said.
This uniform became a natural appendage of his 5-foot-3 frame. Wearing it, she said, feels great.
“The little girls who see me in uniform see the possibility. They feel there is an option open to them that they otherwise would not have known, ”she said. “I think that’s why I wear my uniform with such pride.”
Since becoming a ranger, Soskin has received the Silver Service Medallion from the National WWII Museum; she received a commemorative coin from President Barack Obama; and she wrote a memoir called “Sign My Name to Freedom”, which is being turned into a documentary.
The media attention she has received – especially in recent days – is humbling, she said.
“I know the people who honor me now are such important people, and I have no idea what anyone sees in me,” Soskin said shyly. Anyway, “I like it”.
His most recent honor came just in time for his 100th birthday: a college was renamed in his honor.
“I didn’t know it would mean so much, except it does, because I think it means I’ll go down in history with everyone else,” she paused to wipe away. tear, “who tried to make a difference.”