Oldest National Park Ranger Gives SMC Students a Long View of History

Betty Reed Soskin, America's oldest National Park Ranger, with SMC studentsSaint Mary's students got a real-life lesson in history when , spoke recently at the Women's Resource Center.

Soskin, who works at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, never expected to be a full-time ranger at the age of 90. "The magical thing is that I was hired at 85," she said with a grin.

She eagerly accepted the role because of her concern that the perspective of African Americans was being ignored at the Rosie the Riveter site, which celebrates the women who took off their aprons and picked up tools to work in the factories when the men went off to battle during World War II.

Soskin, who was named woman of the year in 1995 by the California State Legislature, was part of the planning committee for the site as a field representative for California assemblywomen Dion Aroner and later Loni Hancock. Looking around the table, she noticed that she was the only African American. She also realized that part of the "home front" story wasn't being told.

"Black women had been working since slavery outside the home," she said. "It was only for white women that this was a new story." When people spoke of the factories and shipyards where the women worked, she recalled them differently -- as places of segregation. She herself had worked during the war as a clerk for a segregated union hall for African American shipyard workers.

She wanted to help tell the whole truth of the war on the home front -- a story that included the experience of African Americans and interned Asian Americans as well as whites. So when the site opened, she accepted an offer to become a park ranger and still works there full time.

"If only I can live long enough to get people to see and hear that story," she said.

Students, who packed the Women's Resource Center to hear Soskin, asked how she went from being a naive young woman who, as she said, "wasn't even sure who the enemy was" during World War II to being a political activist. "We all became political when we were forced to choose sides during the 1960s," she said. "I became a political activist because it was an irresistible force. Either you go with it and help to change or it sweeps you along."

Reflecting on the changes she has seen in nearly a century on earth, she spoke of her emotional reaction to the election of Barack Obama as president.

"I'm the great-granddaughter of a slave born in 1849. In January 2009, I was invited to be a guest at the inauguration. I had a picture of my great-grandmother in my pocket." She paused and looked at her audience and added: "I don't know if you know what that means."

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Learn more about the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.