When the Mississippi River flooded the south in 1927, one of the 200,000 African-Americans displaced was Betty Charbonnet, age 6. She left the home of her Cajun-Creole ancestors, where her great-grandmother was born a slave, and joined the Great Migration west, to California. “My mother arrived in East Oakland with three little girls, a crucifix, and everything we had left in a couple of cardboard suitcases,” she says.
There’s a hush in the small theater as the audience hangs on the words of a small woman in uniform, seated on a stool. Now 95 and known as Betty Reid Soskin, she is the oldest active U.S. National Park ranger, stationed at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front Park in Richmond, Calif. She is famous for a presentation she gives after showing a film on the era, in order to tell a side of that story rarely heard.
In a polished monologue, Betty explains that after graduating from Oakland High School in 1942, a young Black woman had two options: work in agriculture or become a domestic servant. But the war effort offered something new. She got a job at the shipyards where the park is standing today. “Being a file clerk, even in a segregated union hall, was a step up,” she says. “My folks were proud of me. It would have been the equivalent of today’s young woman of color being the first in her family to enter college.”
“If we don’t know where we started, we have no way of knowing how far we’ve come.”
In the film, women wearing coveralls are shown welding ships, and one says “I knew if I could do this, I could do anything.” But from her post at the union auxiliary hall, Betty never even saw a ship, and she’s hardly nostalgic for the era known as the genesis of modern women’s liberation. “That was a white woman’s story,” she says. “Black women were not emancipated by the second world war. Our mothers and aunts had been working outside their homes since slavery. It simply didn’t speak to me.”
Sixty years after the war, when the NPS started planning the Rosie the Riveter historical site, they invited some of the “Rosies” to the presentation. “I was the only person of color in the room, and the only person who could look at the sites and instantly recognize them as places of racism and segregation,” Betty says.
Her perspective was invaluable to the park’s planners, who invited her to help design it. But why would Betty—who had been active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked as a congressional field rep for decades—choose to return to an era that did not define her life or signal her freedom?
“It evolved so gradually that I never realized I was having an influence. It’s only in retrospect that I realized I helped to shape a national park.”
“If we don’t know where we started, we have no way of knowing how far we’ve come,” she says. “That’s the reason that at 85, I became a national park ranger. That history was so in danger of being totally forgotten.”
When we think of national parks, we think of canyons and glaciers, wide open spaces to explore. Urban parks have a story to tell. “We have created this system of national parks, where it’s possible to revisit almost any era in our history,” Betty tells her audience. “The heroic places, the scenic wonders, the contemplative places, the shameful places, and the painful places. In order to own that history. Own it, process it, that we may begin to forgive ourselves in order to move into a more compassionate future together.”
Betty spent several years helping the planners develop the site before becoming a full-time ranger. “It evolved so gradually that I never realized I was having an influence,” she says. “It’s only in retrospect that I realized I helped to shape a national park.”
“I don’t think I began to feel inner-directed until I began to work here, because I got to define myself on my own terms, finally.”
That’s where history comes full-circle. Though Betty couldn’t relate to the liberation many women found during the war effort, sixty years later, her work preserving the truth of that history inspired her feminist awakening. “I don’t think I began to feel inner-directed until I began to work here,” she says. “Because I got to define myself on my own terms, finally. The men in my life, my father and both my husbands all died within three months. Right behind the grief, because it was profound, lay emancipation. I was no longer Betty Charbonnet, or Betty Reid, or Betty Soskin. I was now Betty. I became so much more powerful than I ever knew I was.”
Last year she was invited by the Department of the Interior to officiate the White House Tree Lighting Ceremony. She was led into a small tent, where she would be meeting the Obamas. “Before they came in, the Secret Service came in to sweep the area, and one of them said, ‘That’s Betty.’” She cackles with delight. “You know you’ve been vetted!”
“I became so much more powerful than I ever knew I was.”
In 2009 she had attended the first African-American president’s inauguration with a picture of her great-grandmother in her breast pocket. Now the little girl from Louisiana, a refugee from the Great Flood, was honored with a presidential coin from Barack Obama himself. All this had been due to her work with the parks, and speaking her truth to visitors three times a week.
When the presentation ends, people come up to shake Betty’s hand, and she chats amiably with each one. Two African-American women take turns posing for photographs with her. “Did I tell our story?” she asks. “Yes, you did,” they say.
Learn more about how we are putting women front and center in 2017: Force of Nature.