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  • Cleo E. Brown


Updated: May 5, 2022

Earlier this month, Betty Reid Soskin, at age 100 & America's oldest park ranger, retired from her job at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park.

Hundreds attended her retirement party in Richmond, California, to thank her for her example for the country and people from different generations and lifestyles.

Soskin was born Betty Charbonnet on September 22, 1921, in Detroit, Michigan. Betty's parents, a Creole father and a Cajun mother, were forced to leave New Orleans and move to Michigan with Betty's two sisters who were born before Betty.

The family was in danger before leaving Louisianna and moving to Detroit because Betty's father referred to a white man on the streets of New Orleans by his first name. After a devastating hurricane in the 1930s and severe flooding caused the family to lose all of their belongings, they relocated to Oakland, California, where Betty's maternal grandfather lived.

While a student at Castlemount High School in Oakland, Betty experienced her first bout with racism when she lost a coveted role because of her skin color. In 1938, Betty graduated from Castlemont High school, which time was predominantly White. Today, Castlemont is primarily Black.

After graduation, Betty married Mel Reid, her high school sweetheart, partly because only two occupations were open to black women: a Sharecropper or Domestic Worker. Instead, Betty chose marriage, which was considered a step up the social ladder. However, at age 20, Betty began working for Boiler Makers Union #36, filing and filling-in change of address cards for transient workers.

She also amassed an AA degree from a local Community College. Her parents were quite proud of her social advancement. Her husband Mel did not fare as well. He dropped out of college to join the Military. The only post open to Black Seaman was that of cook.

Mel was unhappy with his job as a Navy cook and fter being discharged from the military, he returned to his hometown, Berkeley, California. The couple was able to purchase a home in Walnut Creek despite facing the reality of Housing Discrimination.

The couple also owned a record store in Berkeley where they sold Spiritual, Gospel, Jazz, and Blues recordings. They had four children together but divorced in 1971. A year later, Betty climbed the "social ladder again" when she began to date and eventually married William Soskin, a UC Berkeley psychology professor.

About both husbands, Betty has said: "My first husband...and I were divorced in 1971...His life was gravely affected by multiple concussions resulting from many years in football...he died in 1987 after several years of life as a diabetic, having suffered the amputation of one leg about five years before his death".

I remarried...Dr. William the early seventies. Both men died, including my father, Dorsen Charbonnet, within three months {of each other} in 1987...I loved them all. Each contributed to what defines me in these later years. I'm sure."

While reminiscing about the early days when she became affiliated with the Park, Betty said, "What gets remembered is a function of who is in the room doing the remembering!"

She also spoke of the migration and diverse groups of people involved with the WWII War Industry.

"First white men were hired, then white boys; then single white females, then married white females, then black men, and finally black females."

As a self-professed primary source of a racist and sexist yet socially advancing past, we hope she will come out of retirement to continue to share her version of history for many more years to come".

Betty Reid Soskin: An exemplary American!

Credits: Department of the Interior Secretary Haaland presents a Happy 100th Birthday message to Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, National Park Service and United States Department of Interior,

1 Minute, 51 Seconds, 2022.


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