Editor’s note: This story was originally published in February 2018. We’re resharing it because Betty Reid Soskin, the nation’s oldest active park ranger, retired Thursday at the age of 100.
Betty Reid Soskin, 96, considers herself “an absolutely ordinary extraordinary person.”
Soskin has dated Jackie Robinson, co-founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley with her first husband, served as a “bag lady” (delivering cash) for the Black Panthers, and hobnobbed with the leaders of the human potential movement as a faculty wife with her second husband.
She also served in a Jim Crow segregated union hall in Richmond during World War II, experienced redlining in Berkeley when she tried to build her first house, moved to a racially-hostile Walnut Creek in the 1950s, and accidentally catapulted to fame in her 80s, as she brought her lived experience as a non-Rosie to the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park.
Soskin’s historical talks at the park museum’s small theater routinely sell out, and she has become what she calls with some surprise “a D-list celebrity.” At barely five feet tall and barely 90 pounds, Soskin’s power comes from her personal history and from her willingness to talk about it plainly and honestly, not mincing words. She talks quietly and without rancor, but with an iron will. As far as Soskin is concerned, it is way past time to set the record straight about black life in white America.
During the planning stages of the Rosie the Riveter park, for example, Soskin sat in as a staffer for state Assemblywoman Dion Aroner. As the heroism of the Rosies was being extolled, Soskin spoke up to mention that “there were no black Rosies.” There was still segregation in California in the 1940s, and blacks were given only menial jobs. She herself was relegated to filing index cards, and never saw a single one of the battleships being built in Richmond.
“What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering,” Soskin realized. And of course, her memory and experiences stretch longer than most. “Maybe my classification would be ‘Living Artifact’,” she mused several years later as she was about to be appointed a full-fledged park ranger. “Maybe folks would be required to wear those little museum white gloves in order to shake my hand.”
Memoir of “living while black”
Soskin has had nine decades of experience “living while black,” and her mission now is to share that experience with anyone who will listen. Take that young producer from the Hallmark Family Show, who was pre-interviewing Soskin last week in preparation for a show about her new memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life. It has just been published.
The producer explained that the show was “family-oriented” and asked Soskin to stay away from anything “too controversial.” But the problem is that Soskin’s great-grandmother was born a slave, and that is a vital part of Soskin’s story. She finds herself resisting the producer’s friendly suggestions. “That’s the Disney view of the world, right?” she recalled in her blog.
“I found myself finally blurting out, ‘… but don’t you think that runs against what we ought to be doing as feminists?’’ After a long and awkward silence, the producer agreed. How can you detoxify the story of slavery, Soskin asked, “so that no one is offended? Slavery is brutal.”
“We’ve still not processed that history as a nation,” she wrote, “from a time when the women of my world (women of color) fell into 3 categories (house slaves, fields slaves, and “breeders”). And for a period of 300 years! From a time when white men were using rape as a tool with which to increase their ‘stock’ after the English had outlawed slavery and ships were no longer bringing human beings for purchase into our ports. From a time in our history when white men were quite literally selling their own children on the block. Tell me how one does that in today’s world without explosive rage begging to be released?”
Soskin is starting to recognize that buried rage. “There was a time when I first started giving my talks at the park, when I used to say I’ve lived long enough to outlive my rage without losing my passion,” she said, sitting at her kitchen table in her Richmond condo. “But I found that after … which one was it, one of those deaths on the streets …” Her back suddenly stiffens at the memory. “No … Maybe it was after that white nationalist shot those nine people in South Carolina in the church.” Her eyes tear up imperceptibly. “I suddenly found myself in bed, in a fetal position, and that rage returned. I realized it had simply been dormant all that time. It still exists.”
She collects herself and continues. “I once experienced the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as birthrights, as a given. Then I went through periods of seeing them as largely symbolic, as ideals that a bunch of old white men dreamed up.” A small smile crosses her face. “I’m getting even now,” she added. “I get to sit on that stool in the little theater in the museum, in the uniform of a federal agency, and I tell the truth to all those people. And they come, and they get it.”
Soskin started to write her blog in 2003, with only her children and grandchildren in mind. “When I tried to do a family history, I found that the women disappear behind the name changes,” she said. “You can only follow genealogy through the males. I started that blog as a way to categorize my life for my children. I wanted to let them know what it was like to be Betty through my tenure on earth. I didn’t know that I would still be doing it 14 years later, but it became a way to get whatever is on the inside, out. It’s not hard to sit in my bunny slippers and my bathrobe and write.”
“I have no sense of readership,” she added. And yet her blog has developed a real following as Soskin’s fame grew. At some point, her cousin — Oakland-based author and journalist Douglas Allen-Taylor — began compiling selected blog posts into a memoir, adding material from Soskin’s oral history. The publication date is Feb. 6, and Soskin is taking a full month off from her government job to do publicity for the book.
At 205 pages, the memoir offers a personal experience of living through periods of great social change. Reflecting back, Soskin noticed that her life seems to change drastically every 10-12 years. By her own count, she has lived eight or nine lives. “I’ve known a complicated set of identities,” she said. “I have been many women, sequentially.” And she takes you along for the ride.
In addition to her many identities, Soskin has a very complicated genealogy. Her French ancestors came to America in 1631, “at the time of the witches,” although she is not sure if those two things are connected. In addition to this Cajun line, she also has Creole, Spanish, and African ancestors. She considers herself “poly-racial” rather than bi-racial since she doesn’t have one white and one black parent. “Politically, I’m black,” she said firmly. She made that choice early in life.
Soskin was a 1950s Berkeley housewife, helping her husband Mel Reid open and operate Reid’s Records at 3101 Sacramento St. Reid’s catered to a black clientele and offered jazz, R&B, and gospel music. As their business flourished and their family grew, the Reids decided to build their “dream house” in Walnut Creek because their housing options in Berkeley were limited, due to redlining. The new neighbors were not happy to see a black family move into the lily-white suburb, either, and threatened to destroy the building materials if they stayed. Even back then, Soskin was not easily intimidated,. She spent many hours on-site guarding her property. “No one was going to tell us where to live,” she said firmly. “I was standing up for our rights.”
Eventually, she found and joined the local Unitarian church and slowly discovered a group of friends and allies. During the Civil Rights era, she became a bridge between her liberal white community and the Black Panthers. She would collect money in the suburbs around Diablo Valley, and hold fundraisers, and then deliver the money to Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver. Twenty years after moving to Walnut Creek, that community embraced her and sent her as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in support of George McGovern.
During this time, Soskin had four children, one of whom was gay and one who was developmentally disabled. She was basically bringing her children up alone, as her husband was working long hours at Reid’s and promoting concerts by major acts. Their marriage began to crumble, and Soskin had something of a mental breakdown. She began having panic attacks and found herself unable to drive across the Bay’s bridges and tunnels.
“A really great Jungian psychiatrist was able to make me see that living with the insanity of the world as a sane person was as devastating as anything else could be,” she recalled. Soskin was also experiencing precognition at that time: knowing what was going to happen before it happened. “That kind of thing was happening to me fairly regularly, and I was seeing them as symptoms of insanity,” she said. “After three years of therapy, my therapist was able to convince me that I was tapping into something that is universal. My conscious and subconscious were so closely knit together that I was literally dipping in and out of them. That is something that almost everybody can do, but we all censor it out.”
“What I was able to accept as normal has stayed with me,” she reflected. “And I was able to wait for the world to adapt to me, rather than trying to be ‘sane’ in an insane world.”
During that time of vulnerability and extreme stress, Soskin found herself composing songs in 10-minute spurts, without working at it. Those songs just appeared, fully formed, in her mind, and she just had to write them down. Soskin began performing then —singing and playing the guitar — but after the crisis eased, the singing and performing stopped. She still has guitars sitting in her living room, though, and she listens to those songs on her cell phone since a producer digitized them for her. “Those songs are an accurate reflection of the times in which I was living,” she said. “They are really rather amazing.” The songs will be used in one of the documentaries now being made about Soskin’s life.
The Cal years and after
“About 15 minutes” after her marriage fell apart, she met and married Bill Soskin, a Cal psychology professor born in Poland. She began a totally new life as a faculty wife and got to know people like Timothy Leary, Werner Erhard and others who taught and gathered at Esalen. Soskin was not enamored of the human potential movement, but she did hang out with poets as she performed her own music. She also worked alongside Soskin in a drug-prevention project that he ran.
The marriage ended in a divorce that was agreed to before the marriage itself, in what Soskin said was typical Berkeley fashion back then. Bill had decided that at some point he wanted to enter a Buddhist monastery for three years and that when he was ready to do that he would release Betty from her vows. “We took a year to do that, we got therapy, we had lots of parties to say goodbye,” she said. “It was a great year.” She had loved Bill, but they both knew the person who left the monastery might not be the same as the person who entered.
As it turned out, Bill had a psychotic break within three weeks and had to leave the monastery. He died a few years later, within three months of Soskin’s first husband and her father. Looking back, Soskin said that it was actually the death of these three men that finally granted her freedom and the ability to find her own voice and become her own person. She loved them all, yet her life unfolded in new ways once she was no longer relying on men.
Soskin has been politically active throughout her life, both in Walnut Creek and in Berkeley. She worked to revive Reid’s Records after she discovered that her ex-husband had driven the store into bankruptcy. While bringing the store back to life, Soskin fought Berkeley’s City Hall to clean up the drug corridor that had overtaken Sacramento Street in the 1970s. She became so effective that she ended up working in City Hall herself, as a legislative aide to Berkeley council member Don Jelinek.
She also worked with then-Berkeley Mayor Gus Newport to help build low-income housing throughout Berkeley. She had lobbied the city to purchase properties housing some of the crack houses that were then operating around Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue, across the street from her store. The city eventually bought the properties and created Byron Rumford Plaza, an affordable-housing development named after the Berkeley state assemblyman who authored the state’s first and most important fair-housing law. “But the Rumford Plaza will always be known as Betty’s houses to my kids,” she wrote.
From City Hall, she went to work for California Assemblywoman Dion Aroner, and that led to her involvement in the creation of the Rosie the Riveter Park. It’s at the park where she was finally handed a microphone and asked to tell her story to a live audience three times a week.
Soskin’s mother and grandmother both lived into their tenth decade, so Soskin expects to have a few more years to make a difference. She is “obsessed” with being “all used up” before her time comes. She doesn’t want to leave anything on the table.
“It is in these moments that I am beginning to feel all the parts of myself coming together, and the distance between them lessening,” she wrote in Sign My Name to Freedom. As she collaborates with two filmmakers who are making documentaries about her life, she expresses the hope that during this process, “I will become whole, perhaps for the very first time, like metal shavings attracted irresistibly to a magnet.”
“Betty Reid Soskin took the path we mistakenly assign to Rosa Parks,” Allen-Taylor noted in his editor’s note. “Betty rarely chose her life’s battles in advance, as Rosa did. Instead, she faced them as they came — working, raising a family, choosing a home, operating a business on her own. Her sign-ups for the freedom fights were generally unplanned and spontaneous, and in that, she showed all of us what ordinary citizens facing up to their fears can accomplish.”
And after all those fights, despite the very dark times we are living in, Soskin is optimistic. “At this point,” she said, “I see democracy as something that will never be ‘fixed.’ It’s a process, and every generation has to recreate it in its time or die. It’s a kind of upward spiral: each time we hit those places at higher and higher levels, setting the patterns for the next generation.”
“Looking at it that way gives me hope,” Soskin said. “We are in a period of regression right now, but the way out, I think, will become visible.”