If you were 98 years old and still serving as a National park ranger in Richmond, CA, then you would be Betty Reid Soskin. She was born in 1921 and didn’t become a park ranger until she was 85 years old.
Why does she do it? Her museum is the Rosie the Riveter /World War II Home Front National Historical Park, where women worked in the defense industry during the 1940’s. The national park shows the history of all the Rosie the Riveters, women who did men’s jobs building airplanes in Richmond, California.
She wants to put her spin on how it was back then, for blacks.
FDR wanted to ban segregation in defense work. But there was a hierarchy in the hiring.
First the white men who could not serve in the war were hired.
Then the single white women were hired.
Then the married white women were hired.
Then the black men who could not serve were hired.
Then single black women.
Married black women were hired last.
Betty and her first husband bought a house in Walnut Creek in the 1950’s. They received death threats as the only black family in the neighborhood.
If Betty didn’t work as a park ranger, people wouldn’t know that. It isn’t part of the exhibit, but it is part of her daily 2:00 p.m. talk.
Another thing Betty talks about is the Port Chicago explosion and fire that killed 320 black men working at the segregated munitions plant in Port Chicago, CA, on July 17th, 1944. A month later, 50 surviving sailors refused to work under the dangerous conditions and were court-martialed and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
People questioned the sentencing, and public pressure led to desegregation of the navy.
Betty tells the museum goers that those 320 sailors were buried in the colored section of the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno 70 years ago. She questions why there had to be a colored section.
Betty needs to tell the black side of history since it isn’t as well known as the white side of history. Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery in 1846 in New Orleans.
In 2015, Betty was invited to introduce President Barack Obama at a government function. He gave her the presidential coin, which was later stolen from her apartment while she was home. The robber beat her up, but two weeks later, she was back at work.
Betty is a tiny woman, but a tough one. How many 98-year-olds do you know who still get up and go to work?
Betty is a national treasure. If it weren’t for the pandemic, I’d be making my way to the Rosie the Riveter museum to meet her.