“What gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering,” Betty Reid Soskin likes to say. So she’s made it her singular purpose to always be in the room.
Today that room is the auditorium at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, where—at 97—she’s the oldest person now serving as a permanent National Park Service ranger. She packs the theater three times a week with talks about the Rosies and the typically white narrative about the women who served the war effort, but interweaves her experience as a young black woman in segregated America.
There are a few things you should know about my friend Betty. Barely five feet three inches tall, she is sylphlike and strong. When she walks, she leans slightly forward, as if facing a headwind, and strides with speed and purpose. Betty never planned to be a ranger. She got the job at the young age of 85, after working as a field representative for her California assemblywoman, Dion Aroner. Aroner asked her to sit in on planning meetings for what would become the park, and Betty quickly saw that, if she didn’t speak up, the park would portray a whitewashed version of history. “There was no conspiracy to leave my history out,” she says. “There was simply no one in that room with any reason to know it.” So she sparked additions to the formal narratives: the 120,000 people of Japanese descent placed in internment camps by the government; the 320 sailors and workers, 202 of them black men, who died in the explosions at nearby Port Chicago. “So many stories,” Betty muses, “all but forgotten.”
Working at an all-black union hall during World War II and then briefly in an all-white branch of the Air Force (they didn’t realize she was black when they hired her), Betty saw stories like these firsthand, becoming, as she puts it, “a primary source” from the time. Tom Leatherman, the park’s superintendent, says Betty motivated organizers to bring more people to the table: “Because of Betty, we made sure we had African American scholars review our films and exhibits, but we also made sure we were looking out for other, often forgotten stories—Japanese American, Latino American, American Indian, and LGBTQ narratives—that were equally important.”
This year Betty also began sharing her own story. In February she published a memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom, which traces her roots back to her great-grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen, who was born into slavery in Louisiana in 1846 and lived until she was 102. Her families’ lives, Betty says, “stretch from Dred Scott to Black Lives Matter.” Her long view of history—brutally honest and fiercely optimistic—is what draws people to her speeches, both at the park and at her numerous engagements. But what keeps listeners enthralled is hearing a woman who speaks extemporaneously and inclusively about America in its fullness. She also offers a blueprint on how not to despair about our times. “Democracy has been experiencing these periods of chaos since 1776. They come and go,” she says. “And it’s in those periods that democracy is redefined.” When everything seems to be crumbling, we can remold and reset, she believes: “History has been written by people who got it wrong, but the people who are always trying to get it right have prevailed. If that were not true, I would still be a slave like my great-grandmother.”
“In my younger years, I aspired to changing the world. Then reality kicked in, and I settled for 500 square feet.”
For her service Betty has been awarded the Silver Service Medallion by the National WWII Museum, and President Barack Obama presented her with a coin with the presidential seal. There are two documentaries in the works about her life: a half-hour film for the Rosie the Riveter Trust and a long-form documentary that prominently features Betty’s music (her powerful and often painful lyrics about race in America, sung with her delicate voice, have brought comparisons to Nina Simone) alongside her life of activism. She worked for civil rights during Freedom Summer, was active against the Vietnam War, helped with faith-based racial healing work in the Unitarian Universalist church, and became a delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in support of George McGovern. “In my younger years, I aspired to changing the world,” she says. “Then reality kicked in, and I settled for 500 square feet.” After her marriage to Mel Reid ended, she wed University of California, Berkeley, research psychologist William Soskin and used her connections as a faculty wife to gain more civic power, advocating for racial and economic equity for all Berkeley residents while still running the family store, Reid’s Records.
Power. That is what Betty’s life has always been about. The power of self-determination, of imagination, of civic engagement—and of art, beauty, and love. It was a power that ripened within her with every decade of her life, including the times she felt that she was broken, like early on, when she was the mother of two young children and the family received death threats for being the only black family in the neighborhood. Or more recently, in 2016, when a man broke into her home and stole her presidential coin. (When she caught him in the act, he punched her. So she reached up his “trousers,” as she calls them, and squeezed the hell out of his crown jewels. He fled, and in a few weeks, Betty healed and went back to work to great fanfare, and President Obama sent her a replacement.) “Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve ever learned,” she says, “I’m using all of that stuff right now. And all the women that reside in me are now operative.”
We all wish we could be that fully present in our lives, and it’s something you soak up when you’re around Betty. She now has a clear sense of how her life touched others—a 2015 National Park Service Facebook post shows her leading a tour, with her words above it: “[I] wear my uniform at all times; because when 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.”
She also recognizes that her time is limited. “I know I’m in my final days,” says Betty. “I am so aware that if I don’t get it right this time, I can’t ever have time to do it again.” In many people’s mouths this would be a lament. In Betty’s it is a paean to the power of the present. “Everything in my life has to be truthful and meaningful,” she says, “because I don’t have time for foolishness.” After all, she says, “we do not know who is powerful in the moment.” Only history can tell us that.
Journalist Farai Chideya is a former NPR news host, author of The Episodic Career, and the journalism program officer at the Ford Foundation.