100-year-old Betty Reid Soskin is often referred to as “America’s oldest park ranger.” But she doesn’t just work at the Rosie the Riveter World War II National Historic Park in Richmond, California—she played a major role in its creation.
How do you create a national park on sites scattered across an urban area? How do you build a national park on other people’s property? And how do you serve the community that’s already there?
I discovered the National Park Service when officials gathered here [in the city of Richmond, California] to answer those questions. As a field representative for my district assemblywoman, my job was to report back to the state of California on the planning process. When I saw their first PowerPoint, I instantly recognized all those sites where the park was to be located as places that had been racially segregated. Not only was I the only person of color in the room, but I was the only one who had lived through that segregation. It occurred to me that what gets remembered is a function of who is doing the remembering.
The homefront park was being created to tell the story of Rosie the Riveter. That’s an important feminist story, but it’s not the only story. African American women had been working since slavery. We were not emancipated into the workforce by the second World War.
There’s also the story of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned. 70,000 of them were American citizens. The story of Port Chicago—320 lives lost, 202 of them Black dockworkers. The Great Migration out of the Southern states where huge numbers of Black Americans fled to the north, east and west for the first time. So many stories.
I began to talk about how, if those stories weren’t all told, the park would be incomplete. I wanted a place where we could go back and revisit this era—not by the myths that we made up about it, but by the truth as we had lived it. We need a baseline by which to measure how far we’ve come. Without that, we’re cheating ourselves.
As it turned out, those planners were all “graduates” of Sesame Street. They were not only willing but anxious to know what was missing. It was an amazing experience. Here was a federal agency that was willing to listen.
I’m proud of this park—I see my fingerprints all over it. I became a permanent park ranger here at the age of 85, 17 years ago, and I still consider it a privilege to wear the uniform. Every time I put it on, I’m announcing to children of color a career path that they might not have dreamed of attaining.
Listen to the rest of Liam O’Donoghue’s interview with Betty Reid Soskin on East Bay Yesterday