At a deeply moving event held on October 9, 94-year-old Betty Reid Soskin was honored as someone whose “artistic vision, moral force and intellectual clarity gives voice to the people of California, their needs and desires, sufferings, struggles and triumphs.”
Soskin is a political activist raised in Oakland and Berkeley, and currently America's oldest park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. Her participation and activism in the creation of the park itself was instrumental in the ways Rosie the Riveter incorporates and memorializes the African-American history of Richmond and the greater Bay Area region.
Ever since 2002, the California Studies Association has presented the Carey McWilliams Award to a writer, scholar or artist who lives up to the best tradition of McWilliams' work. McWilliams (1905–1980) was a vibrant, controversial, and influential intellectual, lawyer, and journalist who, among his other accomplishments, served as editor of The Nation for 20 years.
In choosing Soskin as this year's Carey McWilliams awardee, CSA recognized her creative and political work in contributing to historical knowledge of California, and especially the experiences of African Americans during and after World War II.
The history of Kaiser Permanente is rooted in the World War II home front, and the national park where Ms. Soskin works shares that pioneering message with the world. Accompanying Ms. Reid at the award was Tom Leatherman, superintendent of four National Park Service historic sites in the East Bay.
Follows are excerpts from Ms. Reid’s acceptance speech. The full text can be found here:
“The National Park Service [celebrating its centennial] only has five years on me!
In 1942 I came into Richmond as a clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union hall… that would be decades before the racial integration of the labor movement. So, in order to comply with [Henry J.] Kaiser’s wishes, labor created what was called “auxiliaries” — a fancy name for Jim Crow, One in Sausalito, one in West Oakland, the other at Richmond — Boilermaker’s Auxiliary #36, which is where I went every day.
If you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you all the shipyard workers were Black. They were the only people I saw every day. The people who came up to my window to have their addresses changed, which is what I was doing on 3x5” file cards to save the world for democracy. And, as we all know, it worked…
There were lots of steps in that process. But only Henry Kaiser would dare to bring in a workforce of 98,000 Black and white southerners into a city with a population of 23,000. He did that not only because he knew he could revolutionize shipbuilding by introducing the mass production techniques Henry Ford used in the auto industry, but he knew where the greatest pool of available workers lay in the country — in five southern states: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.
He brought people into a city who would not be sharing drinking fountains, schools, hospitals, housing, even cemeteries — any kind of public accommodations — for another 20 years back in their places of origin. That’s would not be happening until the 1960s. This was 1942. With no chance for diversity training or focus groups! … That social change, set up in those days, has significance for all our lives. Social change continues to radiate out from where we are into the rest of the country. We have been leading since 1942. And that’s the story I get to tell.
We are all ready to have these conversations now, we are ready at our park. And across the country, that’s beginning to happen. It’s possible now because, as Tom [Leatherman] says, it’s not just the environmental movement, or protecting the wildlife, or the protection of historic wildlands. What we are dealing with now, ever since about 1970, is the history and culture of this country. It’s now possible to revisit almost any era in this nation — the heroic places, the contemplative places, the scenic wonders, the shameful places, and the painful places, in order to own that history so that we may process it in order to forgive ourselves in order that we may all be able to move into a more compassionate future. And the National Park Service is leading that fight.”
A film project sponsored by the Rosie the Riveter Trust to capture Betty Reid Soskin's irreplaceable Home Front insights is in process, for which Kaiser Permanente has provided crucial seed funding. A preview of this documentary-in-progress can be seen here. Donations can be made here; gifts made between now and December 15th will be doubled up by another generous donor.
[Thanks to Lisbet Tellefsen for the recording from which this transcript was made. Photos are by Bryan Gibel]