Betty Reid Soskin, a writer and civil rights activist who found fame later in life as the oldest active National Park Service (NPS) ranger, retired last week at the age of 100.
She spent her last day on the job at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, speaking with the public and visiting with coworkers, according to a statement. The park plans to celebrate her retirement on April 16, reports CBS San Francisco.
As an NPS employee, Soskin tirelessly promoted the stories of African American people and women of color who contributed to the home front effort during World War II. Per the NPS’ website, she briefly worked for the United States Air Force in 1942 but quit after learning that she’d only been hired because her employers mistakenly believed that she white.
“Betty has made a profound impact on the National Park Service and the way we carry out our mission,” says NPS Director Chuck Sams in the statement. “Her efforts remind us that we must seek out and give space for all perspectives so that we can tell a more full and inclusive history of our nation.”
Born in Detroit on September 22, 1921, Soskin grew up in a Cajun-Creole, African American family in New Orleans. A major hurricane and flood destroyed her home in 1927, forcing the family to relocate to Oakland, California.
After leaving the Air Force, Soskin worked as a file clerk at Boilermaker’s A-36, an all-Black union hall in the San Francisco Bay Area, notes Dani Anguiano for the Guardian. A talented musician, she and her husband, Mel Reid, founded one of the first Black-owned music stores in the region in 1945. Called Reid’s Records, the shop closed in 2019, reported Kevin L. Jones for Berkeleyside at the time. Soskin also spent decades working as staff to a Berkley city council member and members of the California State Assembly.
The newly retired ranger has been involved with the Richmond national park since its inception in 2000. In these early planning years, Soskin was often the only person of color in the meeting room, she told the Guardian’s Will Coldwell in 2015.
At 84, Soskin first joined the NPS in a temporary grant-funded role, working to share the understudied stories of Black Americans on the WWII home front. She was hired as a permanent NPS employee in 2011.
“I feel such pride in the uniform,” Soskin told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Santiago Mejia in 2018. “[When I’m] in a public place, I’m announcing silently to every child of color a career path that they might not ever be aware of, because they’ve never seen a person of color like me in a National Park uniform. And the possibilities that I am making that announcement silently is so empowering, both for me and those children.”
In her job leading tours and teaching people about the diverse wartime history of the Bay Area, “I get to layer back in the complexity of those years, the complexity of those stories,” Soskin told the Chronicle.
As rangers, “[we] pull back in the various histories that exist: the Japanese history that exists, the Latino history, the feminist history,” she added. “We get to do that.”
National media outlets flocked to interview Soskin, then 92, when she and other federal workers were furloughed during the federal government shutdown in 2013.
“At 92, I am very sensitive to the passage of time,” she told the Associated Press (AP) at the time.
Urging lawmakers to act so that she could get back to work, she said, “I don’t have time. These young folks were wasting my time, precious time. There are times when I feel like the only grownup in the room.”
Soskin’s long list of achievements spans decades: She was named California “Woman of the Year” in 1995, met President Barack Obama at the White House in 2015, earned the Glamour magazine “Woman of the Year” title in 2018 (the same year she released a memoir titled Sign My Name) and had her portrait taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2019. In honor of her 100th birthday in September 2021, a middle school in the Bay Area was renamed in Soskin’s honor, and she was profiled in the New York Times.
Since suffering a stroke in 2019, Soskin’s recovery has been ongoing.
“[G]iving shape to a new national park has been exciting and fulfilling,” she says in the statement. “It has proven to bring meaning to my final years.”