Betty Reid Soskin, who celebrated her 100th birthday on September 22, 2021, holds the title of being the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service, something she never envisioned or even had set as a goal for herself. “I don’t plan,” said Soskin. “I live life one day at a time and always in the moment, ready for what happens next. I think that’s what sets me apart from other people. I didn’t realize or dream that I was special. I thought everyone just lived in the moment. I really thought everyone took life as it came.”
Soskin says she “slipped into being a park ranger” in her 80s while she was working for a California state legislator in 2000. She was asked to sit in on some initial meetings to discuss the plans for a new park, the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She first served as a consultant, then as a tour guide, and finally she became a park ranger. The initial plans didn’t include Black history and as an African-American woman, Soskin wanted to be sure this history was told.
During World War II, Richmond had a booming population, growing from 24,000 residents to more than 100,000, with six million women entering the workforce at the time. African-Americans received higher wages for industrial work at California’s shipyards and nearly 10,000 Black workers were employed at Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond by 1944. “At Kaiser, we produced 747 ships during World War II, the largest shipbuilding industry in the nation,” said Soskin. “There was segregation because of who we were back in those years and I wanted to channel the story. That was my role. I think the fact that I didn’t shy away and took on all that was thrown at me is the best story ever told.”
Rosie the Riveter became a well-known pop culture icon synonymous with World War II, demonstrating the strength of factory-working women. Like Rosie, Soskin has become an icon, making an impressive mark as a spokeswoman about diversity during World War II. One of her personal favorite titles, though, is being a trailblazer for sharing the untold stories of many African-Americans, minorities and women on the home front during the war. Soskin said she wanted to bring to light the personal stories of Black women who worked in the wartime industry who faced racial discrimination.
Today, she shares those firsthand experiences of segregation she experienced with park visitors. “The original design was built as an homage to white women who had a husband overseas,” Soskin said. “The park was designed to be for women. There were only three of us at the time and now there are 47. I am very proud of it. The stories of Blacks and Latinos weren’t being told until I started telling them. I guess the park would not have had that story. I consider myself to be an interpretive ranger. I interpret the history for the people because I can remember the stories. I want to share these stories.”
Accolades have been many. She was invited to the White House by President Barack Obama in 2015 and named Glamour magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 2018. But as a woman who has broken many barriers, Soskin most appreciates the opportunity to be an outstanding role model to young children. “When I am in my uniform and someone recognizes me, especially if it’s a young girl and their eyes light up, I realize the inspiration. I think they might get a chance for a career path they might not have gotten,” she said. “There might be someone among them who will rise into being a ranger like I did. I have enjoyed every single minute of my time as a park ranger.”
Soskin, of course, gets asked for words of wisdom all the time, but she says the best advice she ever received was this: “Pay attention to the question; don’t pay attention to the answer because the answer will always change. The answer will grow. That’s how we move through life.”
To read more about Soskin’s extraordinary life, pick up a copy of her book, Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life. You’ll learn about her various roles over the years, from record store owner and songwriter to mother of four to civil rights activist and more recently, as a park ranger.
In recognition of Soskin’s birthday, Eastern National’s Passport To Your National Parks has created a special cancellation stamp. The limited-edition ink stamp is now available at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond, California. Want a virtual #RangerBetty100 stamp? Visit the Passport To Your National Parks website at americasnationalparks.org.