By Mateo Requejo-Tejada
Graphic By Yiying Zhang
Born September 22, 1921, Betty Reid Soskin is the country’s oldest Park Ranger at 99 years old. She has served as a Park Ranger at the Rosie The Riveter National Park Museum in Richmond for 14 years. Prior to that, Soskin made several contributions as a Civil Rights Activist and in local politics.
In 1945, Soskin helped her then-husband, Mel Reid, open up Reid’s Records in Berkeley, California. The store predominantly sold to the Bay Area’s Black community for almost 75 years, providing Jazz, R&B, and most popularly, Gospel music. Reid’s Records provided a place for African-Americans to buy records at a time when they wouldn’t have been allowed into other stores because of discrimination. Over time, the shop became more and more successful, and the record store continued to do exceptionally well. They sought to build a “dream home” in Walnut Creek because their housing options were limited in Berkeley due to intense redlining (a form of segregation) during the 1950s. In the recently desegregated community of Walnut Creek, white families were angered at the thought of having Soskin and her family as neighbors.
Her family would, for years to come, receive death threats from the predominantly white community and threats of destroying her property. In response, Soskin spent many hours guarding her family’s property because she refused to be intimidated and leave Walnut Creek. After 20 years, Soskin finally began to be embraced by some in her new community and later became politically active in Walnut Creekand Berkeley.
During the Civil Rights Era, Soskin helped join the Black Panthers to her liberal white community. She collected money in the suburbs and held fundraisers, as well as other events, to support the Black community. She would then head to Oakland or San Francisco and deliver the money to Kathleen and Eldrige Cleaver, early leaders of the Black Panther Party. Soskin’s involvement with local politics didn’t end there.
Around ten years later, during the height of the Crack Epidemic in the ‘70s, Soskin was facing troubling times and wanted to revive the records store. The store was mismanaged, and commerce was low due to the increasing death rates in the Black community. Facing this issue, Betty challenged Berkeley’s City Hall to clean up the devastating presence of drugs on Sacramento Street. Due to her efforts in fixing up the neighborhood, Soskin later ended up working at City Hall as a legislative aide to Don Jelinek because of how effective she had become.
In order to become effective in pushing her agenda through City Hall, Soskin learned to follow three rules taught to her by her friend, late minister Aron Gilmartin of Mt. Diablo Unitarian-Universalist Church: “Always make others look good, great things happen if you don’t care who gets the credit, and the best leadership is when the leadership is invisible to those being led.” In her blog, “CBreaux Speaks,” Soskin writes that the rules were “all that I needed in order to succeed as an organizer activist.” During her tenure at City Hall, Soskin worked with the mayor of Berkeley to build low-income housing throughout the city. She was also able to lobby the city to purchase the former crack houses as well as other properties around Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue and turn them into affordable housing units called Byron Rumford Plaza.
After working at City Hall, Soskin went on to work with Dion Aroner, a California Assemblywoman. This would later lead to her involvement in establishing the Rosie The Riveter Park in Richmond, California. In 2006, she joined the Rosie the Riveter Museum and worked there even after she suffered a stroke in 2019. At the museum, she brought her personal experience working on the homefront during a time when the Jim Crow laws were still alive and well. Soskin says that she chooses to talk about her life during this era in order to preserve history that is too often ignored and forgotten because “what gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering.”
-Betty Reed Soskin was not available to comment until after print. Stay tuned to hear her story from her very own words when she is featured as a guest speaker this Black History Month!