Oldest National Park Ranger Shares 'What Gets Remembered' Betty Reid Soskin has seen World War II, the civil rights movement, and lived "lots and lots of lives." The 92-year-old shares what she's learned with guest host Celeste Headlee.

Oldest National Park Ranger Shares 'What Gets Remembered'

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I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Now it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's where we talk to people who've made a difference through their lives and their work.

Joining us today is Betty Reid Soskin. At 92, she's the oldest national park ranger in the United States. During World War II, she worked for an all-black boilermakers union in Richmond, Calif. And she brings that history and much, much more to her current job as a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. She joins us now from Berkeley, Calif. Betty, welcome. Such a pleasure.

BETTY REID SOSKIN: Oh, thank you.

HEADLEE: Let's go back to your days during World War II. And Rosie the Riveter often is the first thing that comes to mind when people talk about working women during that time. But you reject that title, Rosie the Riveter. Why?

SOSKIN: Well, that really is a white woman's story. Black women were not emancipated by the Second World War. We were working since slavery outside our homes. And so I had never - I never did see, for instance, a ship under construction during that period. I was going in in a carpool every day to Richmond from Berkeley, working in a Jim Crow segregated Boilermakers Auxiliary 36, because the unions were not yet racially integrated. And going home every night without having any sense of what that greater picture was. So Rosie the Riveter simply never did appeal to me as something to identify with.

HEADLEE: So you're an interpretive ranger there.


HEADLEE: And what story do you tell them when visitors come to the Rosie the Riveter site?

SOSKIN: I stay, pretty much, with my own story. Because I think all the elements are there. If you go back to my timeline, my great-grandmother was born into slavery in 1846. She was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. She was born in St. James Parish, Louisiana. She lived to be 102, which that means she died three years after the Second World War ended. Knowing my slave ancestor as the matriarch of my family - she had raised my mother, who was born 1894 and died in 1995 at 101. And I was born in 1921, which means that I was 27, as I say, when my slave ancestor died.

And all of that American history - that great American narrative from slavery through reconstruction through Plessy v. Ferguson and the first world war and Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart and the Great Depression and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the assassinations of the Kennedys and Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin and the moon landing and the Mars probe - all happened within the lifetime of three women who were adults together.

That is mind-boggling, the fact that I bring that history to this park. That I was a seated guest in January of 2009 with a picture of my great-grandmother in my breast pocket, watching the inauguration of the first African-American president, in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, whose life was contemporary of that of my great-grandmother's. That is what I bring to this park. And I think that that narrative is something that this entire nation has gone through. That trajectory of my life, which went from being that young woman of 18 with only two chances for employment to becoming the interpretive park ranger that I am now with full privilege. I think that that's enough to build a park around.

HEADLEE: Now I would think that was enough to build several parks around. I have to be honest with you, Betty. So let me talk about the segregated union, as you were talking about - a boilermakers union. What exactly does that mean? What did you do in your day-to-day work?

SOSKIN: It means that the shipyards had to be unionized. That was mandated at that time, under Henry Kaiser. But it did mean that Henry Kaiser had to go with the social system that was in place at the time. And black and white workers were segregated. That remained true, even after the war. The unions were not racially integrated until the '50s and '60s. At that time, the unions were a drop box into which black workers were filled without a vote, either in the international body or in the union itself. We simply paid union dues. Our records were kept by the unions, but that was it.

HEADLEE: So what - you then eventually transitioned into work with the civil rights and political movements of the 1960s. What brought you to the civil rights movement?

SOSKIN: Well, there were lots and lots of years here.


SOSKIN: The civil rights movement was something that evolved along with me. I didn't enter the civil rights movement formally until the '60s, actually. So those 20 years between the time of the Second World War and the civil rights movement of the '60s was something - was a period of great confusion for people like me. It was formalized during the '60s when we actually had devices. We had systems with which to become involved with that civil rights union.

HEADLEE: What do you mean by a period of great confusion for you?

SOSKIN: Because I grew up in California. I grew up from the age of 6 through my - through the time and I became a union clerk in that hall - union hall at 20. So that I pretty much grew up as the second-generation Californian. Not having grown up under racial segregation - under a system that was formally racial segregation - though, of course, racial prejudice existed, it was by gentlemen's agreement. It was not encoded into the laws, as it was in the South. So that I was spared that kind of experience growing up. And was introduced to it formally only after the black migration into the defense zones, under Roosevelt's arsenal of democracy.

HEADLEE: Well, explain to be then what brought you to the civil rights movement. For a person - I mean, this confusion eventually led to you deciding to get involved. What was it? Was it then participating in a segregated union? Or was it something that you saw in your personal life?

SOSKIN: No. It would have been a combination of many things. It would have been the fact that I experienced segregation - major segregation, during the period of the Second World War. But also that I spent some years after the war - built a home in the suburbs in California, where we were the only family in the Diablo Valley for a long time - the family of color. Where we experienced great rejection - actually, death threats - because we had dared to move into properties that were essentially white because the G.I. Bill, which enabled the construction of the suburbs throughout the country around all of the boom towns, were whites only. Blacks could not follow. And because my husband and I had grown up in California, we simply didn't realize that. We built a home where we were not wanted. And so that, I think, radicalized me politically. So that led into the '60s where I actually could identify with the black revolution and the unfulfilled dreams that were promised by our founding documents.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Betty Reid Soskin. She is the oldest national park ranger in the United States. And she works as a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. And you were actually involved in the planning committee for the historical park. What did you bring to that - to the planning for this, especially considering your unique perspective on the Rosie the Riveter and that heritage?

SOSKIN: Well, we kind of have to go back. When I came in as a clerk in that Jim Crow union hall, it was two years after I graduated from high school as a young woman of color with only two opportunities for employment open to me. I could have worked in agriculture or I could have been a domestic servant. This was - I was a child of the servant's class. Our parents, our uncles, our fathers were the redcap supporters, the waiters, the janitors. Our mothers were the domestic servants for white people's homes and raising their children. That would have been my fate.

But when I returned to Richmond, Calif., during the Second World War, it was as - and 13 years ago, I came back to Richmond, this time as a field representative for a member the state assembly, after raising four kids to adulthood, after having lots and lots of lives and lots and lots of decades. I came back here as a field representative for two members of the California state assembly. I was in a satellite office doing constituency work, helping to determine what kind of legislation might be needed out of the five cities of West County over which we sat. And in that role, because one of the sites in our scattered site parks was owned by the state of California, there was a seat at the planning table for the state and I was in that seat. But you have to understand that when I came back to California, it was under a very different America. The 70 years of social change that were sort of motivated by what happened here during 1941 to 1945 had produced a nation that allowed for me to have that role. And I came to the parks as a consultant.

HEADLEE: So there - you're there in some of those initial meetings on planning the Rosie the Riveter site.


HEADLEE: How much...

SOSKIN: And I am the only person of color who could recognize the scattered sites that defined this park as being sites of racial segregation because what gets remembered is the function of who's in the room doing the remembering. And I'm the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that.

HEADLEE: How - was that information welcomed? I can imagine...

SOSKIN: Absolutely. Absolutely, because those other planners in that room were all graduates of Jim Henson's Muppets. They were all graduates of Sesame Street. They were graduates of Mr. Rogers. And they knew that it wasn't easy being green. They were open to being reminded. And I was opened to learning what I had not learned during the war.

HEADLEE: However, for many African-American families, when they visit a historic site, unless it's specifically related to either the civil rights movement or maybe the Civil War, they often are mostly white history in the United States. That's often the experience of many African-Americans or any person of color, be they Latino or Asian-American or anything else. So...

SOSKIN: Absolutely. Yeah. Generally, history tends to knock off the top scores and the bottom scores as much as we do in the scores in the Olympics. And we go with the generic middle. And that is - that generic middle is white.

HEADLEE: You've actually been blogging, as well, about some of this history and other things since 2003, which frankly also blows my mind. What got you into blogging? You said you started it because you were learning to see yourself in context? Are you talking about...

SOSKIN: Well, I started blogging, originally, because I was doing a family history project - genealogy. And the frustration of trying to trace the women whose names changed along the way - I never could find them after a generation or so. And I wanted to leave a record of my life for my children and my grandchildren. It started out just to be something - a record - that they would know what happened on my tenure. I did it because it was an easy way to process life as it went by, eventually. Now, I've been doing it for about 10 years. I hadn't realized I would be doing that. And now it serves to process life as it occurs. And I like doing it.

HEADLEE: And you've said that you realized, at some point, you'd outlived your rage.

SOSKIN: Yes. I've outlived my rage without losing my passion and I think that's a gift. I think that that rage made it possible for me to live through lots and lots of trauma over those times. It served me well when I was younger. I don't seem to need it now. But the passion remains and I think that that serves me well, too.

HEADLEE: Did your mother, grandmother and great-grandmother - did they also outlive their rage, do you think?

SOSKIN: I'm not sure, because I don't know that that the world they lived in is comparable to the one that I live in. The one that I live allows expression to these feelings that theirs did not. We have so many, so many ways to share these life experiences. I would guess that my great grandmother outlived her rage, because I don't think she would've survived had she had to incorporate the experience of slavery and carry it forward. Though it's interesting to me that one of her grandchildren, just one generation or two generations out slavery, was the president of Texas Southern University. This meant that she must have imparted lots and lots of wisdom from her limited sources.

HEADLEE: Well, since you mentioned the word wisdom and since this segment is called Wisdom Watch, I wonder if you would impart some of yours to us. Having gone in the footprints of so many incredible surviving women and strong women, and you yourself being just an amazing survivor and historical record, at least of the American history, what possibly would you tell somebody? I mean, what do you tell a young person when they come to you at your historical site and say, what's your best advice?

SOSKIN: I think that things that I have discovered, just in the past maybe five years, is that there are conflicting truths, that there be a place on the planet where my truths can coexist with the truths of other realities that other people have experienced over time. And that that they can do that in peace is a value that I think I would not have been able to recognize even five years ago. And I am able to deal with that as long as my truths can coexist in the same place with those of others. I don't any longer expect the world to be as cohesive as I once did. I think, now, that every generation has to re-create democracy, because it will never stay fixed. That one of our rights is to be wrong. And that that's a protected right. One of our rights is to be a bigot. One of our rights is to recognize that the only thing that corrects a bad idea is a good idea. And those came with age.

HEADLEE: I could keep talking to you forever, except that I can't. That's Betty Reid Soskin, a park ranger with the Rosie the Riveter/World War II National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. She joined us from Berkeley, Calif. Betty, thank you so much.

SOSKIN: Thank you. Thank you very much.

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