Betty Reid Soskin Biography
Betty Soskin (Betty Charbonnet) grew up in a Cajun-Creole, African American family that settled in Oakland, California after the “Great Flood” that devastated New Orleans in 1927. Her parents joined her maternal grandfather, George Allen, who had resettled in Oakland at the end of World War I. The Allen family followed the pattern set by the black railroad workers who discovered the West Coast while serving as sleeping car porters, waiters, and chefs for the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads: they settled at the western end of their run where life might be less impacted by southern hostility.
Betty has been featured in countless video and print interviews over the years, most notably the Today Show, NPR, the Tavis Smiley Show, NBC Bay Area, the Commonwealth Club, and Newsweek. She has also been the subject of a number of podcasts and independent short films.Last edited on July 16, 2021
Ranger Program: Betty Reid Soskin "Of Lost Conversations"
In this 55-minute video, Betty Reid Soskin speaks to an audience at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond, California. Betty introduces the main park film "Home Front Heroes", which is played in its entirety. Please enjoy Betty's reflections on her life and experiences, including her time on the WWII Home Front.
- For those of you who are accustomed to visiting national parks, you of course know that every national park has an orientation film. And if it's one of the scenic wonders, like Grand Canyon or Yosemite or Yellowstone, what you'll get in that film will be the geological facts about that park. And you can do that pretty well in 15 or 20 minutes. It works. And then we have the parks that are created in honor of individuals. On the Capitol Mall, there's George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson, and Dr. Martin Luther King. And in this area, John Muir, the environmentalist, and in Danville, Eugene O'Neill, the playwright. And in those cases, what you would get would be the biographical facts about those lives. And that too you could do pretty well in 15 or 20 minutes. It works. When our filmmakers, whose charge was coming up, with creating that orientation film for this park, you can imagine the kind of challenge that might have presented. Because this was probably the greatest mobilization of workers since the building of the pyramids, or the Great Wall of China. I mean, this was, after all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's great arsenal of democracy. It involved every man, woman and child in the country. Also, there were multiple stories on the home front, multiple stories. There was not only the story of the 120 thousand Japanese and Japanese Americans who were interned, 70 thousand of whom were American citizens. The the story of women's emancipation into nontraditional labor for the first time. This Rosie the Riveter, there's also the story of that great explosion at Port Chicago. The vaporization of two Kaiser ships. The loss of 320 lives. 202 of them being black dock workers. The fact that they were tried in mutiny trials up at Vallejo because 50 of those men refused to go back and load those ships because nobody could explain to them what had happened, or what had caused the explosion in the first place. 50 of them refused, were tried in mutiny trials, tried and found guilty of treason because they had refused to obey an order during war time. They were tried and found guilty and sentenced to eight to 15 years. That was the only time history that we ever tried 50 people in a single trial but we did that, 50 people. It's an amazing story. There's also the story of African American migration out of the southern states into the east and the west, and the north, seeking merc and defense plants, sometimes successfully, often times not. The story of, oh, many many stories, many stories. In order to comply with the need for creating that orientation film, and in order to be able to follow those stories, what our filmmakers did, was that they chose to do for us two complete films. One's called, "The War at Home." And that film takes in everything that happened coast to coast. It's the longest of our films. It's a 25 minute film. And it's shown at the top of the hour throughout the day. And that one was necessary. Because this is not a local park. This is a national park. So that one had to be made. And then, there are fragments of films. Not, with no beginning, no end. The shortest of them is a two minute film on Rosie the Riveter. And you would guess that women would get a two minute film. Right. The six minute film Manzanar, the story of Japanese American internment. There are a variety of films and we use those. Don't have a beginning and they don't have an end. We use them as conversation starters. To take in many of the aspects of that story. "Blossoms and Thorns," was made to us, not enforced, not by our filmmakers, not by our filmmakers, but by the Japanese Americans Citizens League. Done after the explosion on September 11th in New York of the World Trade Center bombing. And that one was done because fear ran through the Japanese and Japanese American communities that their country might be guilty of doing the same thing this time to Muslims. And even though they weren't a part of the home front story they were impounded in ten concentration camps throughout the western states. Fear ran so clearly and they weren't a part of the home front story, but when they knew that this park was going to be created, and this visitors center was going to be here, at their own expense, they had "Blossom and Thorns" made so that we could do that. So that we could tell that story to avoid having that happen. There are many, many stories, but the one that I use because there are also programs a range of programs that go throughout the week, different aspects of that home front story done by rangers. I'm here in the theater three to five times a week. The film that I use limits itself just to telling what happened in the city of Richmond. It's a 17 minute film. The reason I use that film is because it's the only part of the story I can talk about with any kind of authority. Because that was the history that I lived. That was the history that I lived. Though the other films are shown in rotation throughout the week, shown on request. You can see them whenever you'd like. And, Home Front Heroes, which is the story of Richmond, is told at the bottom of the hour throughout the week, because it's an important story, a really important story for us. We're going to share that film with you now and when the film is over than I'll put my life in the context of those years for you.
- It was a beautiful little city. I fell in love with it.
- Everything was wide open and rough and wild.
- The conditions for growing are really really good in Richmond. Lots of sunlight and it's not too hot.
- It's kind of a combination of industry and semi-rural landscape that most people remember. They would have vegetable gardens and a cow tethered out behind their home. And will walk up to McDonald Avenue to do their shopping.
- Richmond was a working man's town.
- You had the Pullman Coach Refurbishing factories there.
- Standard oil, the railroad, and later the Ford Assembly building. Kind of a working class community.
- You had a diversity of ethnicities and races living in Richmond. Italian Americans, and African Americans. The Japanese American population, Chinese population. Native American, Indian population as well. Of course, is Mexican American. Kaiser Plant located there before Pearl Harbor. Richmond had a really good deep water harbor, perfect for the shipping industry. It had lots of open space. It also had a working force.
- The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage.
- It was absolute horror. We were in total shock and terror because we were being told immediately that we might be bombed, and we had to immediately go into blackout mode.
- When we got into the war, well there was a big demand and we had to have ships, we had to have everything. I heard on my car radio, "Women do something for your country, "go to the Richmond shipyard and be welder." I hadn't had the faintest idea what it was. I just knew that it was something that they needed done real bad, and I had decided that that's what I was gonna do.
- Load that suitcase and got on a train and came to California and stayed with my sister Caroline.
- We all thought we could make money working in the shipyards. Father was the type of man that looked for better jobs. And he wanted me with him.
- Henry J. Kaiser, you know, he brought a lot of people back from the south to work in a shipyard.
- For African American southerners the most frequently given graduation gift was not a watch or a typewriter, but a train or bus ticket out to the west.
- In two years, little Richmond, just 23000 had become a bustling metropolis of 130 thousand. This fabulous growth necessitated civic expansion.
- Richmond's population exploded physically but also in terms of cultural and social, and even political differences that made living together and working together a challenge.
- I remember always sleeping in crowded conditions.
- There wasn't enough housing for anybody.
- Some were living in a truck, some were living in a car. Everybody was taking in roomers. I had roommate. I worked swing shift, she worked graveyard. We slept in the same bed.
- That way I could sleep in the day time and they could sleep in the bed at night. In downtown Richmond was just seething with people.
- Lots of people on the streets. I mean like, Fourth of July, or like Cinco De Mayo.
- Grocery stores were open 24, everything was open 24 hours a day during that time.
- Everything was moving. The energy was everywhere.
- You had clubs like, Minnie Lou's Restaurant and Blues Club in North Richmond. And then there was of course this enormously popular club called, Tapper's Inn, was a nightclub, a blues club. And it had included in the back room the slot machines and card games, and things like that.
- It was a busy, happening, good town. People had jobs and there was optimism and there was an energy.
- In addition to the shipyards, there were 55 other defense related industries in Richmond so there were workers moving in all directions.
- Everybody was working towards the same goal. We wanted to bring the boys home.
- I went to the hiring hall and they said you have to join the Boilermakers Union. So I went there and this man stern, big and said, we don't take any women or blacks. The next day I went back to the hiring hall and they gave me the same story and I started crying. And there was a man sitting at a desk and he says, go back up there. And they hired me.
- But then when they brought in the women, oh my land. The men laughed at them terrible, at first. You know, look at her, look at her walk, look at her. She doesn't even know how to hold a hammer.
- There were tensions in the workplace that related to both race and gender. There were people who said, I'm not gonna work with a black person. And there men who said I'm not gonna work along side a woman. So, we talk about unity during World War Two, but there were lots and lots of bridges that had to be built.
- In the case of Kaiser, the labor union, particularly the Boilermakers Union, began reluctantly to except, first women, and then African Americans men and women. The momentum to challenge Jim Crow that really launched the modern civil rights movement grew out of the WV campaign. That African Americans push for victory over the enemies abroad but also over Jim Crow at home. The Pittsburgh Courier really was behind launching this campaign for African Americans, to challenge and defeat segregation, discrimination based on race in housing, in the workplace, in schools.
- I went to Richmond High and was taught welding. And I worked at Kaisers. But I never worked side by side with no, you know, on the same ship with a man welding.
- I'll tell you what, the women were the best welders. If you give the woman the job, she does and does that job until it's done right.
- It was like creating a embroidery in metal. I could point out that was a man's weld. And that was a woman's weld. Because they looked different. The men's isn't as uniformed.
- We worked for hours and hours. We did twice work the mens did.
- A new world ship building record is set at one of Henry J. Kaiser's California shipyard. 24 days ago, just a keel plate.
- Henry Kaiser was a genius. He started one of the first health plans and he started the, you know, a place for people to live and things that people didn't have before.
- He developed the childcare centers to accommodate the children needing care while their parents were at work.
- And here's the man who builds them in record time. Henry J. Kaiser with a model to show how it'd done. Build to scale the 14 foot model is made of 81 pieces.
- Everything was prefabed under Kaiser. Well they had the big sheets of steel and they'd weld those together. And then move them by crane onto the ship.
- We'd called them the horrid cranes. They were so enormous. And they would lift these massive pieces of metal and boxes and they were just one of the biggest things I had ever seen.
- And that's how come ships could be built so fast. Parts would be welded together and ready to be put onto a ship in no time.
- Our motto was 10 down the ways in 31 days.
- Down the ways. They would slide that ship down into the San Francisco Bay.
- Rain or shine, ships quietly slipped into San Francisco Bay faster and faster. By the fall of 1943, more than one ship a day left Richmond. The most colossal ship building spectacle the world has ever witnessed.
- They were always giving speeches and telling us how the other yards, how fast they were getting a ship built. So, there was always competition.
- And I remember when we worked on the Robert Peary which was built by the way, I think is, the record has it either three and a half or four and half days from beginning to finish. And I think that's an amazing thing.
- The launching at yard one and two were particularly festive occasions. They got famous people from all over the country. Ship would go sliding down the ways right after the champagne was cracked over the bottle. Very ceremonial.
- It was a patriotic time. You'd see the kids collecting news papers, collecting tinfoil, collecting anything. Women who had gave up all their girdles, so we wore underwear that had elastic.
- It really was the most wonderful time of coming together of the American people that I have ever lived through.
- It wasn't as if the shipyards closed and some balloon bursts and Richmond was depopulated. It really continued to be a thriving community.
- Today I think you have waves of newcomers who have that vibrancy that those newcomers during wartime had. Richmond was called the city that won the Purple Heart because of the amount of change and crowding in the war effort. And, turning out those ships in record numbers. Something happened in the small town of Richmond that people should be very proud of.
- I was very proud of myself that I worked in the shipyards. Proud of myself 'cause I thought we were doing something for the war effort.
- From that point on I always thought I can do anything I want to do. If I set my mind to it I can do anything. And that's how I've lived the rest of my life.
- This was the place to be.
- What sticks with me the most was how wonderful everybody was to each other. Very patriotic and pulling together and it was just a good time.
- That's what makes a story so interesting, that these were ordinary people who did extraordinary things.
- As the credits roll, you're gonna find my name among the consultants to the filmmakers. Of course, the reason that list is so long is because everybody on the staff was a consultant to the filmmakers as well. It's also true that I had no idea what a consultant to a filmmaker was or did. So, there was no way of me to figure out what this finished product was going to be. I just knew that over about two and a half or three year period, on occasion we'd receive from the filmmakers who are at Harpers Ferry on the east coast and 'cause we were on the west coast and they'd send us a block of text to be wordsmithed or we'd get stills from the library of congress or the national archives, and I'd say okay. But I was really in over my head. I had no idea what this finished product was gonna be. It was of somebody had sent me a box of tiles and told me that in that box was a sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, how do you know? When the film was finally released to us finished, just before the opening of the Vidger Center and I saw it for the first time, it may interest you to know that I was disappointed. I didn't like it at all. Partly because the history as I had lived it was nowhere in sight. Not anywhere in sight. But if you're gonna try to tell a story with as many moving parts as this story had, in 15 minutes, what do you do? You go for the Hollywood ending. And we all got together for the sake of democracy and we set our differences aside, and he built the ships and we won the war, and that tends to be pretty much the way history gets written. And our filmmakers hadn't resisted that temptation. And that's what they had done. The real truth was that I was here I was here in Richmond. I was a 20 year-old young woman of color, working in a temporary building somewhere in the middle of Richmond. Somewhere, some people say it was the 17th and Nevin. Others say it was 37th. I've never been certain, but it was torn down immediately when the war ended. So I'm not sure where it was. The reason I was working there was because this would have been at least a decade before the labor movement would be racial integrated. And in order to comply with the demands of the Maritime Commission, the Labor Union had created auxiliaries. One at Marinship in Sausalito. Another in West Oakland, Boilermakers Auxiliary 26 and in Richmond with Boiler Makers Auxiliary 36. Into which all the black workers were dumped. Jim Crow was really the other name for auxiliary. Came in everyday in a carpool, no where near the shoreline. I lived in Oakland, I mean, I'm sorry in Berkeley. Came in everyday in a carpool no where near the shoreline. Never saw a ship under construction, never saw a ship being launched. If you'd ask me at the time, I'd of told you that all the shipyard workers were black. Because the only people I saw were the people who came up to my window to have their addresses changed, which was what I was doing on three by five file cards to save the world for democracy. As you can see it worked. It's also true that I had know idea what that larger story was. It simply had not, I'd never experienced it. Not for one minute. But if you'd known me, two years before then you've known little Betty Charbonnet, a Cajun Creole child growing up in Oakland, East Oakland where I had arrived in year 1927 as a six year old. That was the year that the City Fathers in New Orleans which was our ancestral home, chose to bomb the levees against the rising Mississippi, to save Saint Charles Avenue and the Garden District, and they sacrificed the seventh and ninth wards and the Treme, which was our home. In that year my mother arrived at Six Street Southern Pacific Station in Oakland, with three little girls, everything we had left in a couple of cardboard suitcases, and a crucifix, to join George Allen her father, my grandfather, Poppa George, who had settled out here at end of the first World War. And was at that point sharing a little shotgun bungalow out on 76th Avenue with my mother's two pullman porter brothers, and a sister, and Aunt Louise, who was poppa's third wife. And so, we were no longer required to call them grandmother. She was Aunt Louise. And there we would wait for my father who would join us in a couple of months. And I would begin life in East Oakland as a child of the service worker generation. Our fathers and our uncles were the red caps and pullman porters, and the cooks and the waiters, and the bellhops, and the janitors, and the laborers. And our mothers were 50 cent an hour domestic servants. Cleaning white people's homes and taking care of white people's children because that's who we were as a nation in those years. That's who we were. I graduated Castlemont High School in Oakland, with two opportunities for employment open to me. I could've worked in agriculture. Or, I could've been a domestic servant. My older sister Magaery who's a beautiful young woman and a talented artist spent the first five years of her marriage as half of a domestic team. Her young husband was a chauffeur and Margaery was a housekeeper for a family in Piedmont. And because they lived in, on the premises, with Thursdays off, which was traditional, they could save every penny the earned toward a down payment on their first home. And this was the traditional pathway into the middle class for African American. This was what my life would have been. This is what the prescription was. Except there's a third choice, and it was one I was wise enough to take, I married Mel Reid, who's family had made its way out across the country from Griffin, Georgia, at the first sound of cannon fire, the Civil War. And in 19, Mel his father and his grandmother were all born in Berkeley General Hospital on Dwight Way. And in 1942, Mel was in his senior year at the University of San Francisco playing left halfback for the San Francisco Dons and what 19 year old wouldn't prefer that. So that's what I did. And I completely escaped the life of my sister. But I share that history with you in order to illustrate that being a clerk in 1942, even under those circumstances, even in a Jim Crow segregated union hall, somewhere in a little temporary building in the middle of Richmond, even then that was a step up. My folks were proud of me. I wasn't making beds in a hotel, I wasn't cleaning white people's homes, I wasn't taking care of white people's children, I wasn't emptying bed pans in some rest home or hospital, I was a clerk. Which in 1942 would have been the equivalence of today's young women of color being the first in her family to enter college. That would of been the equivalence. Because that's who we were. That's who we were. Now scroll ahead with me to 15 years ago. And 15 years ago I'm back in Richmond, I'm back after more than 20 years as suburban housewife. Living out in the Diablo Valley. Living out after raising four kids in a redwood designed house. After out living two husbands. After decades of friendships with powerful people who were my church members and friends. I'm here this time as a field representative for a member of the California State Assembly. I'm working for Dion Aroner. And when Dion term limited out I stayed on as a field representative for her successor Loni Hancock who only recently term limited out of the California State Senate. I'm in a one person satellite office somewhere again, in the middle of Richmond. I'm doing constituency work. And along with the rest of field staff I am helping to determine what kind of legislation might be need out of the five cities of Contra Costa County over which my office sat. And if you're wondering whether I became a genius between the time I was 20 and 15 years ago, may I quickly assure you that that's anything but true. That dramatic arc of my life from 20 to 15 years ago in no way is a sign of personal achievement. Not for one minute. Instead, it's a solid indication of how much social change occurred in this country over those intervening years. Something we all did, all of us. Black and brown, and yellow and red, and straight, and gay and trans. It's what we all did. All of us. And some of us did it kicking and screaming. And some us are still kicking and screaming. But enough of us, because of what happened right here in Richmond during those years of 1942 and 1945, because of that social change continues to radiate out of the Bay Area into the rest of the country. And that's enough to build a park around. That's true, that's true. Now, long, I guess it was during that time 15 years ago where the planners were gathered here in Richmond in my legislative district, and that was when the memorial had already come into being. It lay less than a mile from my office but it had never dawned on me to visit the Rosie Memorial because that was a white woman's story. The women in my family had been working outside their home since slavery because it had always taken two salaries to support black families. Few black men could do it alone. Few black men. And, that arc, that arc had never been entered into in many parts of the country, but even here even in the greater Bay Area, we had peeled off on issues, a lot of folks peeled off on open housing. You know, not ready to have a family that didn't look theirs living right next door. What about property values. And then more of us peeled off on the decision of Brown versus The Board of Education, and not ready to have their children to be bused across town to suit my social agenda. And then more of us peeled on Affirmative Action. Which was incidentally never a case of quotas. Either because they had forgotten or had never none that in 1942 it took $47.25 a week to support a family of five. And let's repeat that. $47.25 a week supported a family of five if you were white. But remember our fathers and our uncles were all members of the service workers generation earning 25 to $35 a week. Pullman porters earned $18 a week plus tips for a 12 to 15 hour day, because that's who we were in those years. So the fact that the memorial lay less than a mile from my office that I had never visited it, certainly rose out of the fact that I could not identify with Rosie's story at all. Because we were on a completely different plain. A different one. Now, 15 years ago, the planners were gather here in Richmond because this park had become into being through legislation at a time when I guess it was around 1966, it accord to someone in the Department of Interior that every single taxpayer was funding the creation, the development, and the maintenance of this incredible system of national parks, but it was only the people who had the leisure time and the financial resources who could afford to visit them. And somehow they began to get a notion that they needed to begin to plan urban parks. But, there were no models for those. How do you prepare an urban park without any federal lands? How do you do that? This park had been created in the legislation on paper with scattered sites that lead throughout the city of Richmond. Sites that were either owned privately, commercially, by none profits civically. We were to own nothing. Can you really develop a national park that only exists on stories. Only exists under the hats of the Rangers. How do you do that? How do you create a national park that doesn't have any boundaries? This one didn't have boundaries. The only park that vaguely resembled it may have been the park in Lowell, Massachusetts but in that case the federal government went in, purchased the textile mills, transformed them over time into arts and cultural centers and in time the entire city of Lowell, Massachusetts becomes a national park. And maybe that's what happens here in Richmond. But, the planners were gathered here to begin to figure with the owners of the said site, and the community, the answers to some of those questions. And that's when I discovered the national park. That's when I discovered it. I sat in on my first PowerPoint presentation in the main library on McDonald Avenue. And met this incredible building next door for the first time. The Ford Assembly plant, design by Albert Kahn, built between the years of 1929 and 1931, to assemble Model A Fords. But turned out 49000 tanks and jeeps for the war in the pacific during World War Two. So it was an important piece of the home front story. But that building had been constructed on state owned land. It was built on air rights. So a seat opens up on the planning table for the State of California. And I'm in it. And I'm the only person of color in the room and the only person who could look at the PowerPoint at the scattered sites that laid throughout the city and instantly recognize 'em as sites of racial segregation. Because what gets remembered is determined by who's in the room doing the remembering. There wasn't any grand conspiracy leaving my history out, there simply wasn't anybody in that room that had any reason to know that but me. Nobody, nobody. Atchison Village named in the legislation built by the Maritime Commission to temporarily house Kaiser management. But, they would've been no black managers at the time, so the question was moot. Nystrom Village, also built to be restored to show how workers lived, but you could not live in Nystrom Village unless you were white. HUD built segregated housing for the workers that were brought in from the south. You could not buy or build living quarters if you were not white except in North Richmond. A place where there were no streets or sidewalks. But that's the way we were. That's who we were. The Maritime Child Development Center which show prominently in this film was the work of one of the Kaiser geniuses Dr. Catherine Landis, who believed that little children were capable of learning. That care-taking wasn't enough. And what she developed there turned out to be the progenitor for headstart right here in Richmond. But you could see from the film that there were no children or families of color serviced by the Maritime Child Development Center, none. Now fortunately for all of us all of those planners in that room were graduates of Sesame Street. And you're laughing. But in my pantheon of civil rights leaders, there has always been place for Jim Henson and his children's television workshop. And Mister Rogers. Because we were all back in the 50s, back building the television sets and building the suburbs with our GI Bill and building the automobiles. Our kids were all sitting in front of the television sets being humanized by those geniuses. And Jim Henson and Mister Rogers really had always had a place in my heart. And by in, 15 years ago, those kids were all grown up. And by then they're sitting around corporate board rooms throughout the country. And in the forestry service, in the State Department. And they're in the National Parks Service and they're the Department of Interior. And now, they're in Microsoft and Apple, and Twitter and Facebook, and they all knew that it wasn't easy being green, and they knew that one of these things is not like the other, it doesn't matter one bit. And those planners were not only willing but anxious to know what was missing in their PowerPoint. And for the first time since I was that 20 year old young unknowing naive young woman of color in that segregated union hall, I'm in a position to witness the history that I missed. And it was a marriage made in heaven. I read everything I could about the period. The studies were just beginning to come out of the University of California. Studies by Leon Litvack and Fred Cribbick and Margaret Archibald, Donnor Graves, and Gretchen Sant'angelo, and Shirley Ann Moore. I read everything I could, what was existing about Henry Kaiser. I read. Though the books had, I don't think have yet been written that are going to do him justice. I fell in love with Henry Kaiser. I mean, how could you not. He was a man who had dropped out of school at 13, who had never built a ship, had never built, had to go to the library to figure out how you do that. Came into Richmond as a cement contractor in 1941 on a contract with the Maritime Commission to build ships for the British under lend-lease. He knew that if he could introduce that mass production, prefabrication techniques that Henry Ford was using in auto manufacturing he could revolutionize ship building. Nothing I ever read about him would have convinced me that he was a social reformer. Just a smart businessman. He knew all he needed was enough hands and he didn't care what color they were. He didn't care who they were attached to he just need enough hands, and he knew where the greatest pool of available labor existed in this country. In the five southern states of Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana. Whites coming off the dust bowl. Blacks from the slow mechanization of cotton. Everybody coming up from the great depression of the 30s. Possible for black man been standing on the sidewalk in Jackson, Mississippi, where southern tradition would demand that he not only not make eye contact with a white person, but they step into the gutter if a white person approached. And that man could tapped on the shoulder by a Kaiser recruiter and find himself two weeks later in the city of Richmond riding in the front of the bus 10 years before Rosa Parks would refuse to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama. Into a city with a population of 23000, imagine how small the city was, into a city with a population of 23000 only a man with the audacity of Henry Kaiser would choose to import for his four Kaiser shipyards a workforce of 98000 black and white southerners, who are not going to be sharing drinking fountains, schools, housing, hospitals, even cemeteries, or any kind of public accommodations for another 20 years back in their places of origin. That's not going to happen until the 60s. We're talking 1942. And no time for focus groups and diversity training. They are all living under the common threat of fascist world domination. No time to take on a broken social system. They have to negotiate at the individual level every hour of every day in order to get through it without killing each other. If you knew the sequence in which people were hired because there was not an enlightened Henry Kaiser who was hiring people, it was segregated unions. And first they hired the men who were too old to fight. Followed by the boys who were too young to be drafted. And then single white women. And when that pools exhausted, married white women. And then, in 1943 the first of black men hire to do the heavy lifting. For the women that they brought on board. Hired as helpers and trainees only never to go above that. And though there were some few black women hired as janitors to sweep the decks and pick up trash where other people worked, it wasn't until late in 1944 and early in 1945 when black women began to be trained as welders. And if you know that sequence and you look at that picture on our wall upstairs or in this film, with all these people standing together like brothers and sisters, color, all color and sizes and shapes and ethnicities, and ages, and we come from more enlightened time and we look at that picture and we think look how they got along back then in 1942. Why can't we do that? What you have to know is that those pictures have to date from late in 1944 or early in 1945, because in 1942 you couldn't have gotten them to stand together to have their pictures taken. But you also see in those pictures is that acceleration of social change. They came in as sharecroppers. As you could see by this film. But by the time the war ended they were ship builders. And working around the clock on three shifts a day for 364 a days with only Christmas off, behind a man who referred to the battle ship as the pointed end, you gotta love Henry Kaiser. They had completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. 747 ships in three years and eight months. By way of comparison, Mr. Moore at Moore Dry Dock, who was a traditional ship builder, Mr. Moore had been building ships since the first World War. Mr. Moore completed 100. Bechtel Corporation at Marine Ship, completed 93. And Henry Kaiser completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. And right here, right here in Richmond in his four Kaiser shipyards, helped to turn the course of the war around and bring it to an end by out producing the enemy. That's enough to build a park around. That's enough to build a park around. It began to dawn on me because I stopped working for state and started working for the National Park Service on a four year contract as a consultant, when I realized that if we had a place on the planet where we could go back and revisit that era not by the myths that we made up about it, none of this greatest generation stuff, or today's skin crawling American exceptionalism. But if we go back and revisit that era, in truth, as it was lived by those of us who lived it, only then can we get a baseline against which to measure how far we've come. Remember that arc that we all shared. If we don't know where we started, we have no conception of where we are or how we got here. Only if we go back and retrace our steps. And that's what the park became for me. That's what it became for me. I'd like to end my talk with my personal history which is also forgotten, also forgotten. But so many people lived my history. My great grandmother Leontine Breaux Allen was born into slavery. 1846 in Saint James Parish, Louisiana. She was enslaved until she was 19. At which time she was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and married George Allen who was the corporal in a Louisiana State Co-ed Troops fighting on the side of the North in the Civil War. Together over time, they produced and raised 13 children. And in their home my mother was born to their oldest son George and his 14 year-old wife. Who only lived until my mother was seven months old. But by great grandmother lived to be 102, not dying until 1948. Three years after my experience in that Jim Crow union hall. My mother was born 1894 and lived to be 101, dying in 1995. And I was born in 1921, and the three of us were all adults at the same time. All of us. I was 27 years old, married and a mother by the time slave ancestor died. I knew her as the matriarch of my family. And she had raised all of the significant adults people of my life. And our lives, the three of us, our lives spanned everything from the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War. And the emancipation Proclamation and Reconstruction, and Plessy v Ferguson, and Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs and Lindbergh's flight and Amelia Earhart's loss, two World Wars and Korea. House Un-American Activities Committee and Kent State and People's Park and Martha Luther King and Malcolm X, , and Emmett Till. The moon landing, the mars probe, assassination of the Kennedys. All the way to World Trade Center bombing. 20 kids in a Connecticut classroom in San Bernardino and nine people in a prayer circle in South Carolina. Micheal Brown and Treyvon Martin. And, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Black Lives Matter, and 26 people in small church in Texas. And all that happened within the lifetime of three women who were all adults at the same time. And to add to that the fact that on January 20th of 2009 as a guest of George Miller, I'm a seated guest on the Capital Mall, with a picture of my great grandmother in my breast pocket, witnessing the inauguration of America's first African American president. In the shadow of the Lincoln memorial. Lincoln who's life was contemporary with the life of my great grandmother. And that's how fast the time goes. Can you imagine, can you imagine. I know how my generation confronted the threat of its day, a very real threat. World War Two I'm not sure we could of avoided. We did that, we fought that war. We did it both on the battlefield where we lost 54.8 million lives. On a home front where there were 37600 causalities in industrial accidents. We did that under a completely flawed social system. But we none the less prevailed. We none the less prevailed. Our kids are now facing a new threat, that of rising sea levels and global warming, and climate change, and they're gonna have to match and exceed that great mobilization. This time, internationally, in order to save the planet. And they're going to do it under a still flawed social system because the nature of democracy is so it'll never stay fixed. It wasn't designed to. It's a participatory form of governance. It requires all of us. Every generation has to recreate democracy in its time or it will die. The 39% turnout four years ago in the general election was predictive of the 40% turnout in the most recent general election. An election in which only 17% of those between 18 and 24 voted. But 52% of us over 51 did vote so we were opting for yesterday rather than tomorrow. Democracy cannot be sustained in that way. We have a constitutionally protected right to be wrong. A constitutionally protected right to be bigots if that's what we wish to be. But, we also have created this incredible system of national parks, where though they were not designed for the purpose it is now possible for us to visit almost any era in our history. The heroic places, the contemplative places, the scenic wonders, the shameful places, and the painful places, in order to own that history, own it, that we may process it because I do not believe that we have yet as a nation processed the Civil War. That we may begin to in time forgive ourselves in order to move toward a more compassionate future together. And this why 85 I became a park ranger. Because you guys have forgotten all that good stuff. But is that not an amazing, amazing story? There's a place on the film where Agnes Moore a still living Rosie, says, "It was the greatest coming together "of the American people that I have ever lived through." And during the first months when the film was released I used to stand against the wall and watch the faces in that half light, every time she'd say that and I'd think, how can Agnes say that? She knows that isn't true. I mean I've just talked to that woman. And one day after my 90th birthday, I became aware of the concept of conflicting truths, that we all create our own reality. And that there are many truths. There are truths that raise out of religious conviction, there are truths that raise out education, truths that raise out of life experience, there are many truths, and many of those truths that we all harbor, are in conflict. And I knew from that day forward that as long as there was a place on the planet where Agnes's truth and mine can coexist, that that was gonna be enough for me. And that I get to sit on the kitchen stool in the uniform of the National Parks Service and share that insight with the 14 year olds that come through here is a privilege that I'm granted by the public. And thank you very very much for coming, thanks.
Visit our keyboard shortcuts docs for details
Ranger Betty Reid Soskin speaks at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond, California. In this 55-minute video, Betty introduces the park film "Home Front Heroes", which is played in its entirety.
Passport StampOn September 22, 2021 Ranger Betty Reid Soskin will turn 100 years old. In recognition of her birthday, Eastern National’s Passport To Your National Parks has created a special cancellation stamp. The limited-edition ink stamp is now available at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Educaton Center in Richmond, California.
Want a virtual #RangerBetty100 stamp? Visit the Passport To Your National Parks website at http://ow.ly/LB3a50G2vPN
Don’t forget to check out Betty Reid Soskin’s video program, “Of Lost Conversations", which is available on this website page.
Last updated: June 29, 2022