Betty Reid Soskin worked her way up from Jim Crow laws and bleak employment options to become the oldest (and one of the most respected) rangers in the National Park Service.
Betty Reid Soskin has lived a number of lives. She’s been a clerk in a segregated boilermaker’s union, a political activist, an artist, a mother, a state assembly field representative, and a park consultant. Now, she’s the nation’s oldest active park ranger at age 94, and she wears her uniform with pride.
“It’s a silent message to children of color that this is a potential career path, and maybe not one they were aware of,” she said recently. It certainly wasn’t a career on the minds of her own children, and national parks remain an area of interest diverse groups don’t always connect with.
“Before the 1980s, all American taxpayers were paying for the creation and development of the National Park system, but only those with the financial resources and the time could go and visit them,” she said.
National Parks were born of the environmental movement, and it’s only recently, with the growth of urban parks and National Historical Sites, that their social significance has come to light.
Soskin was working as a field representative for the State Assembly of California when she was called to a meeting with NPS planners. The planners were evaluating potential sites for their next park: a National Historic Site to commemorate Americans’ home front efforts during World War II. Soskin found herself the only person of color at the table, and as such, she alone noticed that every suggested location had been, at one time or another, a site of segregation.
“What gets remembered is dependent on who’s in the room doing the remembering,” Soskin said.
She spoke up, and NPS took her on as a park consultant. At age 85, she became a ranger at Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park. Three days a week she stands up before a packed theater, and tells her story.
“Everything I’ve done in my life seems to have been leading to this place. It’s the memories and the processing of those earlier roles,” she said.
And the memory-making hasn’t stopped. In 2015, the Department of the Interior invited Soskin to the annual Christmas tree lighting in Washington, D.C. There, she shook hands with Barack Obama.
“That was like going up the yellow brick road to meet the wizard,” Soskin said. She carried a photo of her great grandmother, born a slave, in her breast pocket, as a symbol of how far America has come.
Soskin travels the country giving speeches, participating in interviews, and visiting other National Parks. She’s also recently discovered Skype and uses it to participate in interviews and distance learning sessions with students in Eugene, Oregon.
“These experiences keep life opening up for me when it should be shutting down,” she said. Soskin calls this the final decade of her life. She’s at peace with that fact, and believes her role as a park ranger has put her in a unique position to continue to make an impact with those final years.
“Telling my story is the greatest sense of responsibility I have,” she said. “It connects my days with meaning.