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Thu, 09.22.1921

Betty Reid Soskin, Community Activist, and Park Ranger born

Betty Reid Soskin

*Betty Reid Soskin was born on this date in 1921. She is a community activist, lyricist, and retired park ranger.

Born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit, Michigan, she is the daughter of Dorson Louis Charbonnet and Lottie Breaux Allen of Louisiana. Her father was Creole, and her mother was a Cajun. Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery in 1846. She spent her early childhood living in New Orleans until a hurricane and flood destroyed her family's home and business in 1927, when her family then relocated to Oakland, California. Soskin graduated from Castlemont High School in Oakland.

Soskin went to work for the United States Air Force in 1942. After learning that her superiors believed she was white, Soskin confronted a lieutenant who replied that everyone at the base was "willing" to work with her. She resigned and worked as a file clerk for Boilermakers Union A-36, an all-black union auxiliary. Her main job was filing the change of address cards for the workers who moved frequently.

In June 1945, she, and her husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid's Records in Berkeley, California, a small black-owned business specializing in Gospel music. They moved to Walnut Creek, California, in the 1950s, where their children attended better public schools and an alternative private elementary and middle school called Pinel. The family encountered considerable racism, and she and her husband were subject to death threats after they built a home in the white suburb. She converted to Unitarianism and became active in the Mount Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church and the Black Caucus of the Unitarian Universalist Association. In the 1960s became a songwriter in the 20th century American Civil Rights Movement.

She divorced Mel Reid in 1972 and married William Soskin, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1978, after Mel Reid's health and finances had declined, she took over management of the music store, which led to her becoming active in area civic matters. Reid's Records closed on October 19, 2019. She later served as a field representative for California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock.

She became active in planning and developing a park to memorialize the role of women on the Home Front during World War II. The Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000. In 2003, she became a consultant and a park ranger with the National Park Service in 2007 at the age of 85. Her duties included conducting park tours, serving as an interpreter, and explaining the park's purpose, history, various sites, and museum collections to park visitors.

In February 2018, she released a memoir, Sign My Name to Freedom. Soskin suffered a stroke while working at the park in September 2019 and returned to work in a limited, informal capacity in January 2020. Her recovery is ongoing. In celebration of her 100th birthday, the West Contra Costa Unified School District renamed Juan Crespi Middle School to Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. On March 31, 2022, Soskin retired from the National Park Service. She was America's oldest serving park ranger at the time.

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