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January 19, 2009
Biracial ranger, 87, heads to the inauguration
Monday, January 19, 2009
(01-18) 17:44 PST -- Betty Soskin remembers having to drink as a child at water fountains marked "colored" in New Orleans. She remembers laughing with her great-grandmother, a former slave. And she remembers her first bite of economic freedom in 1942 as one of the "Rosie the Riveters" working in the World War II shipyards of Richmond.
On Tuesday, she will add a new memory - one she says will be perhaps the most significant of her 87 years.
Soskin, the oldest active National Park Service ranger in the country, will be sitting in the reserved seats at the United States Capitol to watch Barack Obama sworn in as the first African American president.
"I went to Washington once before, several years ago, and I was completely awed by it," Soskin said the other day as she sat in her office at the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond, where she works. "But even when I visited the Lincoln Memorial, I felt like an outsider.
"This time," she said, face beaming, "it will feel different. For the first time I will feel like a real part of 'We the people.' "
Having been born to parents who were of mixed white and black race under Jim Crow laws, and having grown up hearing first-hand tales of slave whippings from her own great-grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, Soskin said she could never have envisioned an Obama inauguration as a younger woman.
Now, with the highest office in the land no longer barred to people of color, the sky is finally the limit, she said.
"From the age of 13, I haven't ever said the final words to the Pledge of Allegiance out loud," said Soskin, who is widowed, lives in Richmond and has four grown children. "You know, the words about 'liberty and justice for all.' I just couldn't let those words out of my mouth, because I knew they weren't true for me.
"But at the inauguration, I will say them for the first time in more than 70 years. It's a small thing, I know," she added, laughing joyously, "but I am going to say them - and say them loud!"
Soskin is going as a guest of Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, and will sit in seat 1306. That's a fortunate thing in more ways than mere proximity, her friends pointed out. At nearly 90, Soskin is remarkably fit and spry and has an intellect sharper than many half her age - but standing in the possible sub-freezing temperatures would be less than ideal.
"This woman is a treasure, and we need to treat her well," said Martha Lee, who is superintendent of the Rosie park. "Betty's going to the inauguration represents the very relevance of history, because all history is personal. The story of her and of this park is that of heroism on a scale never seen before its time."
Lee is going with Soskin to the swearing-in, but in a reversal of the boss-employee roles, she will stand in the crowd while her ranger sits. That's fine with her, Lee said. Soskin's history not only as a true Rosie, but as a fighter for community causes throughout her life, more than qualifies her for a special day.
Soskin moved to Oakland with her family from Louisiana at 6 years old, and when she graduated from an Oakland high school in 1941 she was told that as a black woman, she should either be a maid or a field worker. No way, she told herself.
The next year she signed on as clerk in the union office of the Boilermakers A-36, the black union for segregated Kaiser shipyard workers making World War II Liberty ships - and that was the end of any future as a maid.
The four Kaiser shipyards in Richmond cranked out 747 Liberty ships and their later twins, Victory ships, during the war, more than any other cluster of shipyards in the country. And though it's well known that the city's population swelled from 23,000 to 100,000 because of that work, what's not as well known is that many of those new shipyard hands were black women.
What's also not widely remembered is that least nine of Richmond's ships were named after major black colleges or leaders, such as the SS Harriet Tubman, Soskin said.
She believes that in bringing the Rosie history to the general public through the park, she will not only honor all those who contributed to the war effort, but add a little-known dimension to black pride.
"The classic poster of Rosie the Riveter with her arm raised only tells part of the story," Soskin said. "It tells of white women being liberated, and that's an important story. But there are others. Black women have been working in all kinds of jobs since slavery, and most people don't know the details of that.
"People should know that the accelerated hopes of the black community were born here, and helped lead to the civil rights of the 1960s."
Over the 60 years following her Rosie job, Soskin worked as co-owner of Reid Records in Berkeley and led community efforts to register voters, clean up drug-infested neighborhoods, attract affordable housing to Berkeley and promote black artistic groups in the East Bay. She also worked as a field representative for former Berkeley-based Assemblywomen Loni Hancock and Dion Aroner.
After serving three years as a community liaison for the Rosie park, she was hired as full-time, uniformed park ranger there - two years ago. At age 85.
"I just never saw any need to retire, so I do what I do," Soskin said with a shrug.
"Betty has an innate curiosity," said Barbara Ellis, a longtime Bay Area activist who worked with Soskin in Aroner's assembly office. "The fact that she is biracial gives her a unique perspective, and she has an incredible drive to bring people together to realize the goodness around them.
"Betty is what we all want to be when we grow up."
E-mail Kevin Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org.