28 Aug The Enduring Memories of Ranger Betty Reid Soskin
A few minutes before our online discussion, National Park Ranger (Retired) Betty Reid Soskin and I spent some time getting reacquainted. She was to be a guest on The Joy Trip Reading Project to talk about her memoir “Sign My Name To Freedom”. After her daughter Di’Ara got her settled in front of her computer, we smoothed out a few minor technical difficulties with our Zoom connection. We then chatted amiably as one by one the attendees populated the waiting room.
It had been many years since Ranger Betty and I had last spoken. Despite her assurances to the contrary, I was fairly certain that she didn’t remember me. Shortly before her 96th birthday in 2017 she gave an amazing keynote presentation before a group of environmental activists at the PGM ONE (People of the Global Majority the Outdoors Nature and the Environment) Conference in Berkeley. She had kindly consented to an interview that appeared as an episode of the Joy Trip Project podcast.
My recollection of the event, though very clear in my mind, is preserved as an audio recording that I can play back at my leisure. Not likely to have listened to our conversation recently on iTunes, Ranger Betty has only her memories.
“Oh yes! I remember you,” she said. “That was such a wonderful gathering. It was so inspiring to see all those young people of color so excited about protecting the environment.”
I’m still sure that Ranger Betty didn’t remember me specifically. A gracious woman of small stature and impeccable courtesy, I imagine that she fanned recognition to be polite and spare my feelings. I was just one of several hundred people eager to speak with her after her talk. But without a doubt, she could easily recall the day we met just as I did. Though in recent years after a stroke had compromised her ability to clearly organize and articulate her thoughts, Ranger Betty seems to have little difficulty calling to mind the events of her past. I find myself humbly honored to be even a single fleeting memory of this remarkable lady whose life now spans 101 years.
The past can be easy to forget. In the passage of time our memories fail. With the advancing years of those elders who were there to experience the events of our history, much of our accurate recollection is lost, sometimes forever. Even with meticulously recorded documents, photographs, and daily periodicals kept for posterity, it is only through the life stories of those who were actually there that we can truly put into the context our understanding of the occasions and circumstances that brought us to where we are today. Ranger Betty Reid Soskin is a witness to more than a century of our history and were it not for her memories, the significance of all that she saw in her lifetime might have been forgotten.
As part for the planning process for the creation of the Rosie The Riveter /World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, Betty Reid Soskin was pivotal in providing a comprehensive perspective of American life in the 1940s. When the park was designated in the year 2000, there were few people involved who were prepared to include the life experiences of non-white San Francisco Bay Area residents, among whom were of African and Asian descent. While those in the room planned to honor the women who joined the labor force to build ships for the war effort, only Mrs. Soskin, then a private citizen in her 80s, was ready to share the complete story of the times.
“No one else in that room realized that the story of Rosie The Riveter is a white woman’s story. I and other women of color were not to be represented by this park as it was proposed,” Soskin wrote in her memoir. “Many of the sites named in the enabling legislation, I remembered as places of racial segregation. And as such they might now end up being enshrined by a generation that had forgotten that history.”
The contributions of Black and Japanese Americans on the home front during World War II could have been lost had Soskin not spoken up. Through her storytelling we are reminded that people of color were also part of the narrative. Inspired by this alterative perspective, the artist Rich Black envisioned an equally empowering persona he calls Wendy The Welder. This iconic imagery helps ground the identities of Black women who also participated in the war effort. Ranger Betty made it clear that if we fail to share the memories and experiences of everyone present during historical events their significance, their very existence could be simply erased.
“It was then that it first occurred to me that what gets remembered is a function of who is in the room doing the remembering,” she wrote. “There was no one in that room with any reason to remember the segregation and racism of those times.”
In her memoir Ranger Betty provides us with a look back in time through her own eyes. She recalls her Great Grandmother, Leontine Breaux Allen, who was born into slavery in 1846. She died in 1948 at the age of 102 with vivid memories of the Civil War. Her own mother Lottie Estelle Allen was born in 1894 and lived to be 101. When she passed away in 1995 her recollections of the 20th century until that date were passed directly to her daughter who is still alive today. These family connections to the past firmly ground Betty’s memories not just in history but in the lived experiences of ancestors she once knew.
Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson joined our online discussion to share his thoughts on Betty’s memoir. As a professional interpreter of historic events, he believes that her recollections from memory are far more substantive than any history we can read on the printed page.
“It’s a very visceral connection that often history does not have in the formal sense because it’s the written word. There’s a big difference between someone telling you a story of the ancestors as they’re telling it to you and looking at you and you can see their eyes and you can hold their hands as they are telling that story,” Johnson said. “It’s another thing entirely when you open up a book and someone that you will never meet is telling that same story…Betty’s telling that story is that sense of awakening and opening up a door to a past that she has lived and she can slip in and out of that space and that time and allow us to come with her.”
It is through her living memory that Ranger Betty continues to engage and inspire new interpreters of America history. Also in the audience was Kassey Trahanas, a young ranger based at the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail in Omaha, Nebraska. Very early in her career with the National Park Service, Trahanas looks to Betty as role model as not only a female ranger of color but also as a gifted storyteller charged with the accurate conveyance of our national history to the public.
“It’s been so moving for me to be able to have someone wonderful like you to look up to and to learn from. You’re so intelligent and so inspiring,” Trahanas told Ranger Betty. “And I just wanted to say thank you. I’m learning and growing and it’s really great to be able to have an inspiration like Betty in the picture for women of color, especially in the park ranger profession.”
This year advanced placement courses in African American Studies are being removed in the public high schools in states including Florida and Arkansas. Texas is likely to follow. Though past failings to learn and share Black history have been incidentally overlooked or ignored for more than two centuries in the United States, today, despite the cultural progress we have made since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, these omissions are deliberate. When asked to justify her reasons for removing the AP course, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders stated in an interview that she believed the lessons taught were inherently false.
“We cannot perpetuate a lie to our students and push this propaganda leftist agenda teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another,” she said in an interview.
Ironically, Sanders attended Little Rock Central High School. In 1954, that once all-white institution was at the center of the landmark Brown V.S. the Board of Education Supreme Court case. This ruling laid to rest the doctrine of “separate but equal” established in the Plessy V.S. Ferguson decision of 1896, which codified into law racial segregation across the U.S. The very place where Sanders might have taken an AP African American studies course as a teenager around the year 2000 is now a historic site managed by the National Park Service. It is likely that even without a detailed series of lessons on the subject, Sanders learned something about the courageous Black students who were the first to integrate her high school, on September 4, 1957, known as the Little Rock Nine.
The lived experiences of a modern woman who lived through most of the last century cannot be taken for granted. The enduring memories of Ranger Betty Reid Soskin and others still living like the nine students from Little Rock who bore witness to so much resentment, anger, and hostility, even hatred, can help us to come away with one critical lesson.
“Learn to forgive. That’s the most important thing, I think,” Ranger Betty said wearily. “I think that learning to forgive is so much. I’m not sure that it is in our nature because we keep having to do it over and over again.”
So that we are not doomed to repeat tragic moments in our history, we must learn from the past. In the mind of Ranger Betty is the key to understanding that to move forward as a nation, united under the principals of liberty and justice for all, we have to forgive the sins of our common heritage. But must never forget them. As we celebrate the life of Ranger Betty and the generations of ancestors whose lives she touched, we can get back to the business of “forming a more perfect union” and take pride in the course we can set for a brighter future.
Author discussions on the Joy Trip Reading Project are made possible thanks to the support of the Schlecht Family Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and The National Park Service in partnership with the Together Outdoors and University of Wisconsin Madison Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies. A series of references and information has been compiled on the life and times of Betty Reid Soskins and her contributions to the Rosie The Riveter/World War II National Historic Site at the Together Outdoors Resources Hub. Take a look and learn!
Research associate Natasha Buffo.