According to her biography, Soskin, born Betty Charbonnet, grew up in “a Cajun-Creole African American family that settled in Oakland, California, after the ‘Great Flood’ that devastated New Orleans in 1927.”
Her family “followed the pattern set by the black railroad workers who discovered the West Coast while serving as sleeping car porters, waiters, and chefs for the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads: they settled at the western end of their run where life might be less impacted by southern hostility,” her biography reads.
Soskin has had a storied life, as you can imagine.
During World War II, Soskin worked as a file clerk at Boilermakers Auxiliary 36, a segregated union hall in San Francisco. “Labor unions were not yet racially integrated and wouldn't be for another decade, so the unions created all-Black unions for workers,” Soskin explained in an interview for DOINews. Following the war, she and her husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid’s Records, one of the first Black-owned music stores, according to her biography.
Soskin’s biography highlights positions she held with the Berkeley City Council and her service as a field representative for former Assemblywoman Dion Aroner and state Sen. Loni Hancock.
But it’s her astounding career turn in 2005, at the age of 84, when she began working as a ranger leading programs at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, that helped Soskin become something of a celebrity.
In an interview with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) in 2019, Soskin said her tours, titled Untold Stories and Lost Conversations, were booked up to two months in advance.
Soskin’s job was paid for by a grant from the utility company PG&E, and it was designed to tell the stories of “African Americans on the Home Front during WWII,” according to NPS.
"Being a primary source in the sharing of that history—my history—and giving shape to a new national park has been exciting and fulfilling,” Soskin said in a statement. “It has proven to bring meaning to my final years.”
In 2015, she told The Guardian that when the park first opened in the early 2000s she “was the only person of color in early meetings that shaped the site’s identity.”
Soskin began her involvement with the park in "scoping meetings with the City of Richmond and the National Park Service (NPS) to develop the general management plan for Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park,” according to the NPS website.
“As a woman of color, my history with the park is a bit different. My experience was not as a Rosie the Riveter; that tended to be a white woman’s story. Black women had been working outside their homes ever since slavery,” she told The Guardian.
She’s won numerous awards and chronicled her life in a memoir titled Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life, based on her blog, CBreaux Speaks.
She’s even had a documentary film made about her, titled No Time To Waste: The Urgent Mission of Betty Reid Soskin.
See the trailer below:
When asked during her interview with the DOI about why she wears her park ranger uniform daily, she said:
“[W]hen I'm on the streets or on an escalator or elevator, I am making every little girl of color aware of a career choice she may not have known she had. That's important. The pride is evident in their eyes, and the opportunities get announced very subtly to those who've lived outside the circle of full acceptance.”
And when asked by the DOI what she would like people to know about her outside of her work at the park, she said:
“I was born in Detroit, spent my early life in my family's home in New Orleans, and headed with my family to California at the age of 6, as the result of the great flood of 1927. I come from Spanish, French and African ancestry, but as a result of having lived through the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s, I identify as a black woman. My great grandmother was born into slavery in 1846. She lived to be 102. She died in 1948 when I was 27 years old. So I was a grown woman having met my slave ancestor.”