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    Betty Reid Soskin to Become SF Pride Parade’s Oldest Ever Dignitary

    Betty Reid Soskin is a national treasure who has broken many records over the past century. Until her retirement on March 31, 2022, at age 100, she was the oldest serving National Park Ranger in the United States. She was one of the first songwriters of the Civil Rights Movement. She co-founded Reid’s Records, which until its closing in 2019 was California’s oldest record shop and one of the nation’s oldest Black-owned businesses. Reid’s Records also was one of the first stores to focus on Black-produced music. She was a key fundraiser for the Black Panthers fighting racial injustice. And on June 26, 2022, she will become the oldest known dignitary ever to be featured in the San Francisco Pride Parade.

    The San Francisco Bay Times is beyond proud to present Soskin in our 2022 contingent and to share just some of her incredible story. As she told Daphne White of Berkeleyside, she considers herself to be “an absolutely ordinary extraordinary person.” She has packed at least nine lives into one, with chapters still left to be written.

    Great-Grandmother Born into Slavery

    Born Betty Charbonnet on September 22, 1921, in Detroit, Soskin was raised by parents who respectively came from Creole and Cajun backgrounds. Her great-grandmother had been born into slavery in 1846. Soskin spent her early childhood living in New Orleans until a hurricane and flood destroyed her family’s home and business in 1927. That year, her family moved to Oakland, CA, where Black families had begun to settle since 1869, when the city became the western terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad. Oakland was nearly as far west in the continental U.S. as individuals hoping to escape racial injustice could go, and the railroad offered steady work in positions such as porters, maids, cooks, waiters, and much more. The shipyards offered numerous jobs too.

    Soskin attended Castlemont High School in Oakland just years after its founding. By 1938, the year she graduated, the school already had a diverse student base. The father of a San Francisco Bay Times team member graduated shortly after Soskin from this same high school. Both recalled frequent fires in the Oakland Hills during the summer and fall months, a pattern that sadly seems even more pronounced today. Soskin would become a lifetime advocate for nature, and later, a voice in the fight against climate change.

    Despite the relative diversity of Oakland at the time, Soskin and her family frequently experienced frequent prejudice. In her blog she has looked back on what it has been like “living while Black”: We’ve still not processed that history as a nation, from a time when the women of my world (women of color) fell into 3 categories (house slaves, fields slaves, and ‘breeders’). And for a period of 300 years! From a time when white men were using rape as a tool with which to increase their ‘stock’ after the English had outlawed slavery and ships were no longer bringing human beings for purchase into our ports. From a time in our history when white men were quite literally selling their own children on the block. Tell me how one does that in today’s world without explosive rage begging to be released?”

    Stepping Up to Help During World War II

    Just a year after Soskin graduated from high school, World War II began when Germany invaded Poland, leading to multiple countries around the globe declaring war on Germany. The U.S. entered the war in December 1941. Soskin immediately did what she could to help.

    She went to the Boilermakers Union A-36, an all-Black trade union founded in 1893 for boilermakers and related occupations. There she worked as a file clerk, a job for which she took much pride. Being in an administrative position was considered to be a step up from the more hands-on, blue-collar service work of her older relatives. Workers on the home front during the war, however, were often segregated. She shared more about those years in an interview for the National World War II Museum:

    Reid’s Records

    During the war, in 1943, she married Melvin Reid, who had been an all-star athlete at Berkeley High School. He went on to play both professional baseball and football, being on such teams as the Oakland Larks, Oakland Giants, San Francisco Clippers, and Hawaiian Warriors as part of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League. He and Soskin shared a love of music and a passion for racial justice. They desired to sell “race records”—music that few if any white-owned business would offer—to the Bay Area’s burgeoning Black population hungry for such music.

    At first Soskin sold records through a window in their home garage. Reid worked at Kaiser Shipyards, saved money, and together the couple opened Reid’s Records on June 1, 1945, in the ground floor space of the duplex they lived in. Initially the store primarily sold jazz and blues music. In 1947, however, Reid launched a radio program on KRE named Gospel Gems and quickly became the leading DJ of Black gospel music in the Bay Area. This led to an expansion of their music selection and, in turn, an expansion of their business, which was moved next door to their duplex at a storefront at 3101 Sacramento Street in Berkeley. As Black music genres multiplied, Reid’s Records started to carry new idioms like funk and soul. Even as other major record store chains opened in the area, Reid’s remained the undisputed source for music by Black artists, and particularly gospel.

    Singer and Songwriter

    Soskin and Reid moved to Walnut Creek, which then had few Black families. The couple experienced overt racism and even death threats. As the Civil Rights Movement strengthened in the 1960s, along with the Singer-Songwriter Movement, Soskin devoted more time to singing and songwriting that she had enjoyed for much of her life. She began to perform at colleges and community events in Northern CA, using music to voice her frustrations, hopes, and beliefs. As she told Andrew Gilbert at KQED: “I could sing things I couldn’t say. If they were said, they would be too harsh. If they were sung, people would hear them.”

    Soskin and Reid divorced in 1972, yet her interest in music has continued. Reid’s Records went on for nearly another three decades under their family’s ownership. Gentrification took its toll, though. Reid’s Records closed on October 19, 2019, ending nearly 75 years of operation.

    Just two years later, in 2021, Sign My Name to Freedom: The Unheard Songs of Betty Reid Soskin was presented at the Brava Theater. The new musical created by jazz vocalist Jamie Zee highlighted Soskin’s years performing as a guitar-strumming singer/songwriter.

    Community Activist

    Yet another chapter of Reid’s life concerns community activism. During the Civil Rights Era she collected money from individuals in cities and suburbs near her home and then delivered it to Kathleen and Eldridge Cleaver—renowned for their involvement in the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement. She later referred to herself as the “bag lady” of the time, since she was often transporting bags of money she collected from primarily white liberal donors to the Black Panthers.

    In 1978 she married William Soskin, who was a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. She grew more active in the Democratic Party, and having previously served as a national convention delegate during the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. She additionally worked as a field representative for California State Assemblywomen Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock. In those positions she became actively involved in the early planning stages and development of a park to memorialize the role of women on the home front during World War II.

    World’s Oldest Park Ranger

    The plans for the park came to fruition when the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was established in 2000. Located in Richmond, CA, the park preserves and interprets the legacy of the U.S. home front during World War II including the Kaiser Richmond Shipyards, the Victory ship SS Red Oak Victory, a tank factory, housing developments, and other facilities built to support America’s entry into the war. In particular, the role of Black individuals and women in war industries is explored and honored at the park.

    After a state job and serving as a consultant at the park, Soskin at the age of 85 became a park ranger with the National Park Service in 2007. For the next 15 years she conducted park tours and helped explain the park’s purpose, history, various sites, and museum collections to visitors. She has been celebrated, such as in the former Oakland Tribune, as “a tireless voice for making sure the African-American wartime experience—both the positive steps toward integration and the presence of discrimination—has a prominent place in the Park’s history.”

    She suffered a stroke in September 2021 (while speaking during an event, which she did not wish to leave unfinished for the sake of guests, even immediately after the stroke!) yet returned to work just a few months later. When she retired this year, she was the nation’s oldest serving park ranger and remains a legendary, iconic figure in the National Park Service.

    Support for LGBTQ Family Members and Others

    Soskin had four children: Dale Richard Reid, Robert Thomas Reid, Di’ara Melite Kitty Reid, and Dorian Leon Reid. One is developmentally disabled, one was openly gay and has since passed, and another—Di’ara—is proudly transgender and is a member of the San Francisco Pride Board of Directors. (Betty also has four grandchildren: Kokee Amanda Reid, Rhico Melvin Reid, Alanya Leon Reid, and Tamaya Alejandra Reid. And she has a great-grandchild: Patrick Kayden Hebert.)

    Soskin has always celebrated and supported her children along with the LGBTQ community. For this issue of the San Francisco Bay Times, she wore the Progress Pride Flag with ease and honor. She will be with Di’ara in our contingent for the SF Pride Parade, along with friends, other family members, and former colleagues.

    It would take not just one book, but many, to properly cover Soskin’s life and achievements so far. We recommend Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life, written by Soskin in 2018. She has received numerous honors, including:

    • California Woman of the Year, California Legislature, 1995;
    • Builders of Communities and Dreams, National Women’s History Project, 2006;
    • Attended President Obama’s Inauguration as a guest of Rep. George Miller, 2009;
    • Proclamation honoring her by Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin on behalf of Richmond City Council, 2009;
    • Received honorary doctorate at California College of the Arts at Spring Commencement, 2010;
    • Received the WAVE award as one of three “Women of Achievement” by GirlSource of San Francisco, 2010;
    • Awarded the National WWII Museum Silver Service Medallion, at the American Spirit Awards gala, 2016;
    • Recognition in the Congressional Record in 2016 and 2019;
    • Received honorary Doctorate of Arts and Letters at Mills College, 2017;
    • Received the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks from the National Parks Conservation Association, 2018;
    • Juan Crespi Middle School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District was renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School to honor Soskin; the renaming ceremony was held on her hundredth birthday on September 22, 2021;
    • and Google recently named a room at its headquarters after her, June 2022.

    On June 26, 2022, she will become what is believed to be the oldest dignitary ever to be presented in the San Francisco Pride Parade when she rides in the San Francisco Bay Times contingent. We hope that you will be there to cheer her and the contingent on! She remains an inspiration for us all. In the foreword to her memoir, Oakland-based activist and journalist Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor (who sadly passed earlier this year) wrote: “It was Betty Reid Soskin who took the path we mistakenly assign to Rosa Parks. Betty rarely chose her life’s battles in advance, as Rosa did. Instead, she faced them as they came—working, raising a family, choosing a home, operating a business on her own. Her sign-ups for the freedom fight were generally unplanned and spontaneous, and in that, she showed all of us what ordinary citizens facing up to their fears can accomplish.”

    Published on June 22, 2022