Posts Tagged ‘Rosie the Riveter’

Photo: Shaniqwa Jarvis/Glamour.
Betty Reid Soskin works at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. Soskin is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service.

In a fascinating September article at the Washington Post, Sydney Page interviewed a no-nonsense park ranger who was in her 80s when she heard a call to improve on the way US history is told. Here’s her story.

“When asked how it feels to be 100 years old, Betty Reid Soskin [said]: ‘The same way I felt at 99.’

“But she’s not just any centenarian: Soskin is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service. …

“When it comes to sharing her story, Soskin is not shy. As a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, she spends her days recounting her rich and complicated history, in the hope that her firsthand account will resonate with people, and encourage them to share their own stories.

“ ‘I think everyone’s story is very important. There is so much diversity,’ Soskin said. ‘It’s in that mix that the great secret of a democracy exists.’

“It wasn’t until 21 years ago, though, that Soskin truly started telling her own tale — and it happened by coincidence. While working as a field representative for a California assemblyman, Soskin attended a meeting with planners from the National Park Service.

“They were organizing the development of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, created in 2000 to honor Americans on the home front, who worked in various industries across the country to bolster the war effort.

“The park paid homage to Rosie the Riveter, a pop-culture icon, symbolizing civilian women who worked in shipyards and factories — assuming the vacated jobs of men — during the war. But the depiction of a red-bandana-wearing White woman didn’t speak to Soskin’s own experience on the home front as a Black woman in segregated America, she said. During the war, Soskin worked as a file clerk in a segregated union, Boilermakers Auxiliary 36.

“ ‘Black women were not freed or emancipated in the workforce,’ she said in a 2015 interview with the Washington Post. ‘Unions were not racially integrated and wouldn’t be for a decade. They created auxiliaries that all Blacks were dumped into. We paid dues but didn’t have power or votes.’

Sitting in that meeting with the National Park Service planners as the only Black person in the room, she realized something: ‘The history, as I had lived it, was nowhere in sight — not one minute of it.

“Soskin decided to change that. She became a consultant to the park in 2003, and a park ranger in 2007 at the age of 85. Sharing her story with as many people as possible, she decided, was her way of reclaiming her history, and that of countless others whose tales have gone untold.

“She’s become known for saying: ‘What gets remembered is determined by who is in the room doing the remembering.’ So she made it her mission to stay in the proverbial room — which, in her case, was in the park’s visitor center. …

“Tom Leatherman, the park’s superintendent, said Soskin has had a profound impact on the park.

“ ‘She has been fundamental to us being able to tell a more complete story,’ he explained. … Soskin has propelled the park, Leatherman added, to seek other stories of people who have been marginalized and ensure that they are heard — including voices that are Latinx, Native American, Japanese American and LGBTQ. …

“The content of her presentations is dictated, in large part, by what visitors want to know. Often Soskin speaks of her upbringing in a tightknit Cajun-Creole family and her experiences with racial discrimination growing up in Oakland, Calif. …

“Over the years, Soskin — who has four children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild — wore many hats: mother, musician, civil rights activist, antiwar advocate and finally, park ranger. Her most recent role is what pushed her into the national spotlight.

“Just like that, ‘someone dropped a uniform on the life that I was already leading,’ Soskin said. … Wearing it, she said, feels right.

“ ‘Little girls that see me in uniform see possibility. They have a feeling there’s an option open to them that they wouldn’t have known otherwise,’ she said. …

“Since becoming a ranger, Soskin was awarded the Silver Service Medallion by the National WWII Museum; she was presented with a commemorative coin from President Barack Obama; and she has written a memoir called ‘Sign My Name to Freedom,‘ which is being made into a documentary. …

“Her most recent accolade came just in time for her 100th birthday: A middle school was renamed after her.

“ ‘I didn’t know that would mean so much, except that it does, because I think that it means that I will go forward into history along with all the other people,’ she paused to wipe a tear, ‘who have tried to make a difference.’ ”

More at the Post, here. You might also like the 2018 article about Soskin at Glamour, here.

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