America’s Oldest Park Ranger Reflects on the Importance of the NPS
At 93 years old, Betty Soskin is the oldest active ranger in the National Park Service, which itself just turned 99 this week. Though she’s lived an incredible life as a civil rights activist, songwriter, and field representative for a member of the California State Assembly, Soskin joined the park service eight years ago with a new passion: ensuring that the true scope of that history is recorded and remembered for years to come.
Soskin works at the 15-year-old Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, California. It’s a park that she helped shape when she sat on a planning panel during her time working for California State Assemblywoman Dion Aroner. But it’s also a park whose story she lived firsthand as a 20-year-old clerk for a segregated boilermaker’s union. It was an experience that’s part of a broader story about World War II in America, a story that Soskin is determined to tell.
As the NPS gears up to celebrate next year’s centennial through its Find Your Park initiative—meant to draw young people into its 408 parks—here now Soskin shares the story of how she found her own park.
On the The Legacy of Rosie the Riveter
“I had always considered Rosie the Riveter as a white women’s story,” Soskin says. “I have never been even the least bit interested in it.” Though she had worked on the Richmond home front during the time of the Rosies, Soskin says she didn’t feel like she could relate to that story.
“That [World War II working] women’s history over time had pretty much evolved into a bumper sticker. The ‘We Can Do It.’ But the story was so much deeper than that.”
After all, the story that’s told about the World War II home front is often one of white workers, particularly the women who were working outside of the home for the first time. But men and women of color had always worked, Soskin points out, as waiters, janitors, and domestic servants. And when these men and women went to work on the home front, as Soskin did, they were segregated. “That we as a nation had the nerve to fight a war to save democracy with a segregated armed forces and home front is just delusional,” she says.
On not understanding her own role in history
“As a 20-year-old clerk in a segregated union hall, I had no idea of the size of the home front story at the time when I was living it,” Soskin says. “I would go to work every day in a carpool, go home every night, never seeing a ship under construction because I was nowhere near the shoreline and never saw a ship that was being launched. So that whole history of the home front was limited to my view from that window in that temporary building in the Jim Crow union hall.”
And the same was true of other workers on the home front. Now when other former home front workers visit Richmond and take her tours, Soskin finds that they’re as astonished to learn about the history of the home front as she was. “Their sense of their contribution is infinitesimal because they were doing such a small part of such a large job that nobody came away with any sense of that overall comprehensive picture,” Soskin says. “In those four shipyards, [they] completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. That’s something that nobody can get their head around. They’re coming back, and they’re learning that for the first time.”
On sitting on the planning meetings for the NPS World War II Home Front Memorial
When the National Park Service began to plan the creation of the World War II Home Front Memorial more than 15 years ago, one of the seats on the planning committee was reserved for a member of the California State Assembly given that part of the historic site was on state-owned land. Soskin ended up sitting in that seat. And though she hadn’t quite understood the scope of the home front experience when she was a 20-year-old working in it, the memorial planning meetings changed that.
“It was as a field representative sitting in those meetings where I began to get a sense that that story was really broader,” she says. “That the women of color who had been part of that story had been completely forgotten. I wanted to make that correction. I wanted to broaden history to what it really was.”
On why she joined the National Park Service
Through those planning meetings with the National Park Service, Soskin began to learn about her own history and was astounded. “It’s even larger than the story of Rosie the Riveter or a black woman’s place within that story,” she says. “It’s a much, much greater story and it’s much more dramatic. And the National Park Service has the power and the ability and the resources to flesh that out. To be a part of that was really exciting to me.”
But Soskin was also compelled to become more deeply involved in the memorial—and then eight years ago become a ranger herself—because she knew she had something to offer. “There was an opportunity to layer back in the complexity of those times and it was my interest in helping to do that as a primary source. There’s not that many of us living.”
It’s especially crucial to take advantage of firsthand historical accounts while you can, Soskin says, citing the former Rosie the Riveter docents and volunteers she works with at the Home Front Memorial. “I think the fact that our park has the ability and the capacity to take advantage of those of us who are still living as primary sources is really a gift. And I think our staff and the National Park Service is aware of that.”
On the role of the National Park Service
But an especially compelling reason to join the National Park Service was the organization’s ability to highlight the trajectory of progress in America. Soskin says that even her own personal trajectory—from a young woman working in a segregated union hall to now a key voice on the history of a movement—is revealing if told honestly. “If we could tell [what happened] as it was lived, we could get a baseline to measure how far we’ve come. Because it is true that we have made an incredible amount of progress. Through the National Park Service and its resources, we can trace that progress.”
“The 408 units of the National Park Service allows us to go back in history and revisit any era through those national parks, any era, the heroic places, the scenic places, the painful places,” she continued. “And we can do that in order to own that history as a people and then to forgive ourselves in order to move forward into a more compassionate future together. And that has been my passion in the National Park Service and that association through my park, the Rosie the Riveter park. And I think that’s just an amazing thing.”