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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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  • Cleo E. Brown

Updated: May 5, 2022

Peg-Leg was born Clayton Bates at birth. On October 11th, 1907, he was born in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. His parents, Emma Bates and Rufus Stewart were sharecroppers. Clayton wanted to be a dancer, not a sharecropper or a farmer.

Therefore, he performed before his first live audience at five. He performed "Buck Dancing," the same as tap dancing, before an all-white audience at the local barbershop.

Clayton's mother disapproved of him dancing. One day, she went into town, grabbing him by the hand and telling his audience, "You will not make a monkey of my son! Go make a monkey of your own children".

At the age of twelve, Clayton began working in a factory. One day, the electricity went out in the factory. Clayton stepped on a piece of equipment called an auger which chewed up his leg. Unfortunately, the year was 1923, and in the rural south, when no hospital would admit him. Clayton's leg, therefore, was amputated on his mother's kitchen table the next day without an anesthetic.

This tragic incident led Clayton's mother to believe it was a condemnation of her by God for letting her son work in a factory. Additionally, Clayton lost his faith in God. When Clayton was fourteen, his Uncle Witt made him a wooden leg. Clayton taught himself how to tap dance using the makeshift leg from which his nickname "Peg Leg Bates" began.

By the age of fifteen, Clayton was once again proficient enough at dancing to enter amateur talent shows and other dance competitions. From these competitions, he networked his way into professional dancing and worked the International Circuit until 1940.

By the age of twenty, Bates was dancing on Broadway, but due to extreme segregation throughout the United States he was forced to perform in blackface to conceal his being a Negro. He was also not allowed to eat in whites only establishments.

However, later in his career Bates became such an international sensation, performing before royalty and major audiences worldwide that he was able to stop performing in blackface and eat wherever he desired.

By 1940 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Bates executes a "Jet Plane" in which he leaps five feet in the air and then summersaults across the stage until he lands on his leg. This routine became his signature performance piece and eventually propelled him to international stardom.

In 1951, Bates bought a country club for African-Americans which he owned and operated until 1987. The club was located in the Catskills Mountains in Kerhonkson, New York. Distinguished guests and performers included Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sydney Potier, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Mel Torme.

In 1987, Bates decided to sell his business after the death of his wife. Additionally, The Civil Rights movement that forced white-owned establishments to accept African-Americans ironically led to a decline in supporting black-owned businesses.

When Bates's health declined, his daughter Melody stepped in to care for him. Eventually, he returned to his hometown of Fountain Inn, South Carolina, until he died on Sunday, December 8th, 1998.

The legendary dancing man was 91 years old when he suddenly collapsed and died while walking home from church on that day. Bate's death was on the same day he received an award at a fundraiser

Bates is famous for saying, "Don't look at me in sympathy for I am glad I am this way...I feel good knocking on wood...for I am Peg-Leg Bates, the one-legged dancing man." Today, streets and monuments are named after him in New York and South Carolina.

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