OPEN WITH BETTY REID SOSKIN: “I still am having first experiences at 96. I think that is absolutely incredible…I am having so many experiences that are so new for me, new for anybody, that I have the sense of having lived into the beginnings of a culture that is still unfolding for me. I don’t know what keeps one young except that I have lived my life in a constant state of surprise.”
LINCOLN CUSHING (intro): Hello. I’m Lincoln Cushing, Kaiser Permanente’s historian and archivist. Recently, I had the chance to sit down with Betty Reid Soskin, a remarkable woman, who is widely known as the country’s oldest national park ranger.
Betty is 96 years old yet lives with more energy and vitality than many of us can imagine. Over the course of her eventful life, she has been a staff member for the California legislature, a mother, an artist, a singer and an activist. In her current role as a park ranger, she gives weekly tours at the Rosie the Riveter, World War II National Home Front Park in Richmond, California. Kaiser Permanente, through the Rosie Trust, has been a major sponsor and champion of the park, which is the birthplace of our health plan.
In our wide-ranging conversation, Betty talked about her childhood and coming of age in Richmond, working for the segregated union for black shipyard workers there during World War II, and finding her identity as an African-American woman. She also shared her admiration for Kaiser Permanente’s co-founder, Henry J Kaiser, who she considers to be a “great industrialist” and a man who forged ahead with audacity, both in building ships and creating a health plan for workers.
Betty Reid Soskin has become an icon for our region and our time. Among her most important contributions has been adding the African American voice to the home front story. Most recently she is coming out with a memoir. Clearly, she enjoys sharing her story.
Our conversation begins with her experience as a woman of color on the World War II home front.
BETTY: I was working in the shipyards during 1943 and early 1944. And it was at a time when it took $47.25 a week to support a family of five, if you were white. But our fathers and our uncles were in the service worker generation and they only earned 25 to 35 dollars a week. So, the women in my family have been working outside their home since slavery, because it has always taken two salaries to support black families. Few black men could do it on their own.
What I learned during that time was that the first to be hired were the men who were too old to fight. The second, were the boys who were too young to be drafted. The third, were single white women, and when that pool was exhausted, married white women. In the 1943, the first of black men hired to do the heavy lifting for the women they’d brought on board. But they were hired as helpers and trainees only. They couldn’t go above that. And it wasn’t until late 1944, early 1945, that black women began to be trained as welders. That sequencing has always been fascinating to me.
LINCOLN (transition): As Betty prepared for her role as a park ranger, she immersed herself in historical texts. Studying up on wartime and homefront, she developed an appreciation and admiration for Henry Kaiser.
BETTY: I fell in love with Henry Kaiser. I mean, absolutely, he is my complete hero.
I never perceived Henry Kaiser as a social reformer. He was just a smart business man. He was just a great industrialist. He knew that if he could introduce the prefabrication mass projection techniques that Henry Ford was using in auto manufacturing, that he could revolutionize ship building. And his audacity! I mean, his absolute audacity was something that has convinced me ever since that he’s simply, that it wasn’t that he was trying to reform the world in his image, but that race was a non-issue for him. When he was hiring his people to work in the shipyard, when he did his most aggressive recruiting from the five southern states, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, when he brought that workforce into a city - a workforce of 98,000 people into a city with the population of 23,000 - I mean who would do that except Henry Kaiser. And no time for focus groups and diversity training. They have got to negotiate every single day of every hour in order to get through it without killing each other.
And because they were all living under the common threat of fascist world domination, behind a man who dared, they were able to do that, and together, working around the clock on three shifts a day for 364 days a year. Henry Kaiser and his band of sharecroppers for the most part produced 747 ships in three years and eight months. I mean, who would do that? Who could do that? I mean, he was absolutely amazing to me, he—and has continued to be. The more I learn about him, the more respect I have for him.
LINCOLN (transition): After the park opened in 2012, Betty began her role as a park ranger – providing context, insight and details that only someone who witnessed it first-hand can share.
BETTY: In the park, I’m in the theatre for hour-long programs three to five times a week. There are programs by other rangers taking on various aspects of the Home Front story because of course, the Home Front Story has so many moving parts. It’s so incredible. It’s a 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans interned during that time, 70,000 of them being American citizens, the story of the explosion of Port Chicago, the mutiny trials at Mare Island. A story of African American migration out of the southern states into the northeast and the west, seeking work in defense plants, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
I tell the story of the African American experience because that’s the only part of the story I can talk about with any kind of authority, because that’s the history that I lived. The whole idea of being a Rosie the Riveter simply passed me by. I don’t relate to being a Rosie, because that’s not an experience I had. That was a white woman’s story.
I use a 15-minute film called “Home Front Heroes” in my presentations. And it limits itself just to telling what happened in the City of Richmond. And to the extent that the National Park Service has gone to the full expense of creating this wonderful film, because it really is a wonderful film, telling the story of Richmond, when it’s over I stand up and say, “yes, but this is what you’re not seeing. This is what happened.”
And then I tell the story of the African American experience, which is pretty much left out of that story. And I find that the audiences are not only ready, but are appreciative of learning that history. Today’s audiences are ready for conversations that I don’t think would have even been possible 15 or 20 years ago. And on my part, for the first time, I have a sense of being able to tell that story sitting on a kitchen stool in a park ranger uniform supported fully by a federal agency that I get to tell that story to a welcoming audience from inside the circle. 15 or 20 years ago I would have been talking about that from outside. I’m sharing that history now from inside the circle, at a time when “we the people” includes me.
I’m surprised that I have so few African Americans in my audiences.
But when I do get African Americans, they come up to me and hug and say, “you told it right.” And that’s great because they’re hearing their stories from me. And they’re hearing it among white folks, and that’s different. Those are the conversations we have around the kitchen table, but white folks are not there. But when I’m talking about them publicly without compromise, I think that they identify with me, and that’s something that I enjoy.
Something magical happens in that place, in that theatre. I have learned in the process that there are many truths. The concept of conflicting truths dawned on me one day after watching the film and hearing Agnes Moore say on the film, talking about the war and the home front effort, and she says, “it was the greatest coming together of the American people that I have ever witnessed.” And when she first used to say that, and I listened to her and I think, “wow, how can Agnes say that? She knows that isn’t true.” And one day the concept of conflicting truths dawned on me, and I realized that there were many truths, that we all create our own reality. And that there are truths that rise out of religious conviction, that truths rise out of educations, they rise out of life experience. And that as long as there was a place on the planet where Agnes’s truth and mine can coexist, that was going to be enough for me from then on, and it is. And now I get to sit on a kitchen stool in a uniform of a park ranger and I get to share that insight with 14-year-olds that come through here. And they don’t have to get to be 90 years old like I did to discover the magic and conflicting truths. That is a privilege.
I grew up at a time when I would utter the Pledge of Allegiance without sound until I attended the inauguration of President Obama, because I knew it was a lie – “with liberty and justice for all” didn’t include me or my family. But I also knew that many people around me who were doing the Pledge of Allegiance in good faith didn’t know that. And that the fault lay somewhere beyond them.
And I never wanted to be insulting to those people by not going through at least the motions, but I wouldn’t allow sound out. And that was from the time I was 13, when I remembered discovering that in middle school, realizing also that the people around me, the children around me, had no idea that that didn’t mean me. And the teacher at the head of the class is someone I adored, and that she didn’t know. And it wasn’t until I was on the Capitol Mall on January 20 of 2009, then I went audible, because suddenly I was inside the circle. And I’ve been inside ever since.
I know that the audiences that I share my story with are moved by it because I am in touch with my own history, through family stories, that I am a descendant of slavery, that my great grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen who was born into slavery in 1846 in Saint James Parish, Louisiana, was in my breast pocket, in a photograph when the two of us went to inaugurate America’s first African American President. That I knew her through my lifetime because I was 27 years old when she died. I knew her, my slave ancestor, as the matriarch of my family. That I get to share that story with the audience as it comes through at the end of my talk moves me because it keeps me relevant and grounded, because I’m acting not only for myself, but for the five generations that came before me and I’m very aware of it. I’ve been doing my talk now in that theatre for years and every time there’s a fresh audience the material is fresh for me and I’m sharing that history with people who are moved by it. And I really, really enjoy that.
LINCOLN (transition): Betty speaks with confidence about her identity as a strong and independent woman. But she reveals that it was not always so, that she initially followed a conventional path of young wife and mother, and modeled herself after women who lived to support the man in their lives. She awakened to her more liberated identity in mid-life, and has not looked back.
BETTY: My life had been defined by my women’s role, which at that point was defined quite differently than it is now. That successful women were those who were married by the time they were 23 and had a first child, that you lived in support of the man in your life.
I think that I was defined by the men in my life until I was 50. A first husband, after divorce, a second husband. And first by my father. But I was really compliant in that. I was not a rebellious woman. I pretty much flunked marriage, and didn’t come into my own until the year 1987, I think it was, when they all died within three months. And I was suddenly not Betty Charbonnet, I wasn’t Betty Reid, I wasn’t Betty Soskin, I was just Betty, and I had to figure out what that was. And that has taken on a number of career moves in trying to identify just who I was until now, I’m a ranger. And I was a field representative for California State Assembly and soon I will be an author. But I’m still trying to figure out just who that Betty is.
LINCOLN (transition): Betty may be in her 90s, but by all appearances, she shows no intention of slowing down. The years have provided her with perspective, wisdom, and an enduring curiosity about the future.
BETTY: I’m not a planner. I don’t really know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next week, and don’t have any intention of even guessing. For instance, I am beginning to entertain the notion of—what’s beyond ranger? I mean, okay, so, I’m going to be an author. Now I’m going to be doing book signings. I mean, come on, who would have even guessed that that was possible, or that I have anything still to say at 96. But that life is still unfolding. I do have a sense of being in uncharted territory. I don’t have any models to live by. I’ve outlived all my peers, most of them.
Every day is a gift because I’ve lost my sense of future, but my sense of past has been enhanced. So now, I can go back and see the patterns in life. I know we’ve lived in these periods of chaos ever since 1776. We’re on this upwards spiral that keeps touching the same places at higher and higher levels.
And it’s in these periods of chaos that democracy is being redefined, and that that’s when we have access to the reset buttons. And it’s in those periods that the stage is set for the next generation that’s going to follow us and we’re caught now in another one of those periods of redefinition. And, for me, it’s hopeful and exciting. And I think that I’m going to be carried away kicking and screaming when I die, [Laughs] because I’m not going to ever be ready to go. [Laughs]