Betty Reid Soskin Addresses Generations of Change
“I know that the future is created by people like me,” Betty Reid Soskin told a full crowd at Saint Mary’s Hagerty Lounge. “Very small people—by what we do or fail to do in moments in the present. And that creates the future, and tomorrow.”
The 97-year-old Soskin, known as “America’s Oldest Park Ranger” and so much more, gave the keynote address during the Center for Women and Gender Equity’s (CWGE) 20th anniversary celebration held Friday, March 8. With her strong, clear voice and elegant bearing, Soskin spoke about the generations of change she’s witnessed and her hopes for the future.
“I am now using everything that I’ve been able to learn in this final decade—I’m living in a time where I am graphically aware that this is probably my last decade. So, every moment has to be meaningful,” Soskin began.
“Fortunately, I’m involved as my life’s work in something that suits this period. It’s not only a summation of all the years I’ve lived, but it’s dealing with some of the issues that carry me from time to time. I was very active in the civil rights revolution of the sixties. But I now have a sense, in this final decade, of having—along with millions of others—helped to create the future that I’m now living in,” Soskin continued.
“That’s an amazing thing. Because that future—it still needs work and will go on needing work. But how I look at it is so different in this final decade. I remember a time when I was much, much younger, when I really believed that the Constitution and Bill of Rights were like deeds to property, or entitlements,” Soskin said. “And anyone who did not grant my rights was in effect not only being un-American but being ungainly. I’ve aged to a place where I now see democracy as a process that has to be re-created with every generation—that it will never be fixed. Democracy is a process, always re-forming that more perfect union,” Soskin added.
“And that its energy for continuance is derived from all of those debates that we’re having, all of the balances between right and left. That produces the energy that gives us the strength, the power, to move from one generation to the next, keeping democracy intact. I didn’t know that even a decade ago,” Soskin said.
“So…I’m still learning. I think as long as I’m having first-time experiences that my life is progressing, even toward whatever comes next,” Soskin said.
Soskin further discussed democracy’s challenges today: “I think that one of the important findings for me was that I realized in the last maybe even two years that these periods of chaos are cyclical, that they’ve been happening since 1776. And it’s during those periods of chaos that democracy is being redefined. It’s when we have access to the reset buttons,” Soskin declared.
“It’s also during those periods when we make the giant leaps forward. I’m not enslaved like my great-grandmother was. It is as if we’re on an upward spiral. We keep touching the same places at higher and higher levels. We are in one of those periods of chaos right now.”
Soskin keeps her head up when others are looking away. “It’s a time when we get access to the reset buttons. When I saw Charlottesville, rather than be depressed or devastated, like many of my friends were, I was feeling elated. Because there was simply no place to hide anymore. It was all out there to be seen. The sheets were down. The Klan was exposed. That period that we moved into, that chaotic period is simply, for me, the next step up to opening a door into that next level of social development,” she said.
Soskin has become a ubiquitous symbol of national history. “On January 20 of 2009, as a guest of the Department of the Interior at the Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in Washington, D.C., I was invited to meet the Obamas and participate in the tree lighting ceremony,” Soskin reminisced. “Here I was with the first African American president to hold the office in front of the Capitol that a slave built, with [a photograph of my great grandmother, who was born into slavery] along in my pocket. And only I knew that all of that generation was present in that moment. Can you imagine how powerful that was?”
Soskin calmly spoke about her life as a 97-year-long witness to history, expressing that she couldn’t be more surprised by her new-found fame. After her husband died and children moved away, “I suddenly realized that I had to find a life for myself. That began a powerful period for me because I had realized that one could do that. And I had to have new edges to grow from. I think I've been doing that since each time I find a sense of restlessness, I realize that I’m moving for a new change. Then I became a park ranger at the age of 85, which surprised nobody,” she said with a laugh.
“I received a bicycle for my 90th birthday…. When most people are giving up, I find myself living in a period where I’m experiencing Skype sessions with a class in Eugene, Oregon, of high school kids while I’m sitting at my laptop in Richmond, California. Or participating in a panel with the annual flower show in Pennsylvania. And I have only recently been the subject of three pieces of virtual reality among people called wisdom leaders. The filmmakers came to my home with one of the 14 cameras that exist in the world that looks like a coffee canister but takes 360-degree images,” Soskin announced proudly.
“And I’m told that my great grandchildren 200 years from now will be sitting in the room with me, and I sat and looked with the headset and had as close to an out of body experience. Can you imagine, at 97, that experience that’s so edgy, I don’t know what to do with it?” Soskin asked the amused crowd.
Taking on the National Park Service
Soskin has long said that history is written by who is at the table, remarked CWGE Director Sharon K. Sobotta, who led Soskin in the Q&A session. Soskin serves at the Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond and played a large role envisioning the park.
“I was a field representative for a member of the California State Assembly. I was attending those early planning meetings because the city of Richmond had been selected. It’s the only place in the country suitable for interpreting the story of the Home Front,” Soskin began the tale.
“Because there were boomtowns that had grown up around defense plans throughout the country, all the signs of the Home Front story had been redeveloped out of existence long ago, except for the city of Richmond, where there were more still-standing structures through which to interpret that history than any other place in the country.
“Now the memorial, which was already in existence, lay less than a mile from my office in Richmond, an office where I was doing constituency work and helping the chairman along with the rest of the field staff on what legislation might be needed. But I had not visited the Rosie memorial because that was a ‘white woman’s story,’ ” Soskin recalled.
“The women in my family had been working outside their homes since slavery. Because in 1942, it took $47.25 a week to support a family of five, but that was if you were white. But all of our fathers and our uncles [were] sewer workers, earning $25 to $35 a week. Pullman porters earned $18 a week plus tips for a 12- to 15-hour day because that’s who we were as a nation in those years.
“So, the women had always been out [working] since slavery, and it had taken two wages to support black families. Our mothers and uncles and our aunts had always worked. It was in that context that I discovered the national parks, when the planners from Washington had come here to plan this park with the owners of the scattered sites and the community. And that was when I realized that they didn’t know that those scattered sites were all sites of racial segregation.
“Because what gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering. There wasn’t any grand conspiracy. There simply wasn’t anybody in that room of color except for me…. This Home Front [exhibit] also had to cover 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans who’d lost two and a half years of their lives, sometimes four, and most of their treasure in internment camps—largely because they looked like the enemy. There was never a single case of any disloyalty proven against any one of them. There’s also a story of the 320 men who were vaporized along with two cargo ships in the Port Chicago explosion.
“Fifty of those men refused to go back to load those ships because nobody could explain what was the cause of the explosion. They were tried with 50 of them in a single file, and all found guilty, and sentenced to eight to 15 years in prison. There was a story about African American migration of the Southern states into the Northeast and the West, seeking work in defense plants, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
“There were so many stories on the Home Front, but those stories could only be told if I were there telling them because there was nobody in that room that had any recollection and ever experienced the history as I had lived it. That was when I became a consultant to the National Park Service and eventually a park ranger. And now, those stories are all over the place.
“They’re all equally true. They’re all equally explained in both film and exhibits. It’s probably the most important work of my life because I feel that my fingerprints are all over the park,” Soskin said.
Betty Reid Soskin: Writing Her Truth
Soskin recently made an audio version of her new book, Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life. “In reading it, I felt that I accounted for my truth. There was nothing I would have changed…if I’m remembered by what’s in that book, that would be enough for me. I think that [my story] might be important because there are more and more people described by otherness in the world today.
“And maybe my voice is one of the earliest that will have dealt with that. That I grew up thinking that because I was racially mixed, that I was nothing. And during the civil rights revolution, that was confirmed for me. [There was a] time when, in the black revolution, I wasn’t quite black enough. In the suburbs, I wasn’t quite white enough.
“And I finally realized that that was not true. That what I was everything. And that was a pretty good thing to be.”
As a surprise to both the audience and Soskin, Sobotta played a 1964 jazz rendition of a song from Soskin’s early singing career. In “Sign My Name to Freedom,” Soskin uses her melodic voice to express the words: “Mama go to the courthouse, got to sign my name to freedom,” and “God was down at the courthouse, going to sign my name to freedom. My lord was down at the courthouse, day I signed my name.”
Said Soskin of the song’s lyrics: “That woman went to the courthouse and registered to vote at the risk of her life. And “Sign My Name to Freedom” was a celebration of that act.”
For more about Betty Reid Soskin and the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, visit https://www.nps.gov/rori/index.htm.