Ranger Betty Soskin, 93, on the Rosie the Riveter national park, California
The oldest national park ranger in the US tells us why she’s proud of the second world war home front park in Richmond, just across the bay from San Francisco
Coming up Rosie … the visitor Centre at Rosie the Riveter national historic park, Richmond, California. Photograph: Alamy
Interview by Will Coldwell
Friday 8 May 2015 08.30 EDT Last modified on Friday 8 May 2015 09.12 EDT
I settled in the greater Bay Area as a six-year-old in 1927. When I graduated from high school in 1938, my two opportunities for employment were working in agriculture or being a domestic servant. At that time, labour unions weren’t racially integrated and, during the war, I worked as a clerk for the segregated boilermakers’ union.
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Ranger Betty Soskin with a photo of herself as a young woman. Photograph: Alamy
Rosie the Riveter national park in Richmond, over the bay from San Francisco, tells the story of America’s home front in the second world war. It takes in scattered sites such as the Kaiser Shipyards and the Ford assembly plant and preserves the legacy not only of the women who entered non-traditional labour for the first time, but of all those who served.
The park is creating a common history. Richmond was a town of 23,000 people in 1942 and a city of 130,000 by the war’s end, so the city is a collection of strangers looking for an identity. The park is helping to do that.
It’s an indication of how much social change has occurred in this country, that 70 years on from working in that union hall, after raising four children and outliving a couple of husbands, I could return to Richmond as a field representative for the state of California. In those intervening years, the country had evolved.
The National Park Service is America’s greatest gift to itself. Movie director Ken Burns said that, and I think it’s true. Having places where America can revisit its past and move together to a more compassionate future is a gift – and the Rosie the Riveter park is one of those places.
One of the most important sites is the Rosie memorial. It was designed by two San Franciscan artists: Cheryl Barton and Susan Schwartzenberg. It’s an abstraction of a part of a ship, and there’s a timeline of the story of the home front in one direction and, in the other, quotes from the women – Rosies – whose oral histories we have.
The Rosie memorial has a timeline on one side and quotes from the ‘Rosies’ on the other. Photograph: Alamy
As a woman of colour, my history with the park is a bit different. My experience was not as a Rosie the Riveter; that tended to be a white woman’s story. Black women had been working outside their homes ever since slavery.
I’ve been involved with the park since it opened. I was the only person of colour at the meeting held in 2000 to flesh out its identity, and the only one who could look at the scattered sites and point out that most of them were also sites of racial segregation. There was no grand conspiracy to leave [black] history out – it was just that no one else in that room had any reason to remember it.
I love showing visitors a film about the history of Richmond. When it ends, I get to do a commentary, bringing that history into the future. When the park was being set up, the exhibit designers and film makers really did listen to those of us who lived and worked here. I feel very much a part of its creation.
The view of San Francisco Bay from Richmond. Photograph: Alamy
One of my favourite places is the Ford assembly plant. The vista from that place takes in Oakland and Angel Island, Alcatraz and San Francisco, and all of the nine counties that touch the bay. Sitting on the shoreline, looking at the Bay Area, is one of my favourite things, and I take a few moments out of every day to do that.
Whatever I do today has to be done right because I don’t have time to do it over again. I’m at place where I now have full respect for conflicting truths – all of us live a different reality. And the park that I work in also appreciates those truths.
There’s a life-size mural in the visitor centre depicting MacDonald Avenue, the main street that runs through Richmond, taken on 6 December 1941, the day before the dropping of the bombs on Pearl Harbor. We have visitors from all over the world, and most stop at that mural.
I’m 93, in my 10th decade. If your brain is still intact at this age, you have an incredible perspective – it’s a wonderful time to be living.
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