You only live once is a very limiting expression. Although birth to death is viewed as one lifetime, the number of lives a person can lead throughout a lifespan is infinite. The concept of leading multiple lives in one lifetime holds very true for Black women in history.
Betty Reid Soskin is a prime example of becoming multiple people in one lifetime. Born September 22, 1921, Soskin has lived through huge turning points of history, such as segregation, war, and technological advancements.
Throughout her life, she never allowed one single role to define her. After spending most of her life as a daughter, mother, musician, and activist, she became the oldest national park ranger. Although Soskin is now retired, she has led a fascinating life and still wakes up daily with curiosity and joy.
Here is a brief look into Soskin’s life and the impact she has made.
The early life of Betty Reid Soskin
Soskin began life in New Orleans; however, because of the racially charged times, Soskin’s family had to flee to Detroit. Soskin shared during a speech at the San Francisco Public Library that they moved to Detroit because they feared for her father’s safety.
Fortunately, they started a new life in Oakland, California. When Soskin became an adult, the city was still heavily segregated, and people of color had limited choices regarding employment. The obvious choice was to work as a domestic worker. However, that career didn’t last very long with Soskin. On the contrary, she married a well-off man and was able to pursue a different career route.
Life as an activist
While working as a clerk for the U.S. Army Air Forces Office, Soskin began her path toward activism. Unknowingly she received the job because she passed for white. When she later realized that her coworkers thought she was white, she went to clarify the matter. Although they agreed to let her continue working, they would not allow her to receive a promotion, so she walked out — a simple but powerful act of refusing to settle for less than she deserved.
Although she didn’t continue working with the army, she still remembers the war’s impact on society. The explosion on July 17, 1944, in Port Chicago, was a moment she’d share with guests during her time as a park ranger. Three hundred and twenty men died, and 200 men were African American — an event that had been buried behind other historical moments.
Soskin eventually began moving away from the war efforts and supported her community. In 1945 she and her husband, Mel Reid, founded the first Black-owned music store, Reid Records. The store was known for selling race records, or records from Black artists, that other record shops with white owners wouldn’t sell. The store was a success for many years and only recently closed in 2019.
Her role as an activist continued through various efforts. She was involved with antiwar protests, fundraised for the Black Panthers, actively participated in the Unitarian Universalist Church, and was a delegate for George McGovern during the 1972 Democratic National Convention. Her tenacious energy and desire for justice were merely one part of the puzzle that makes up Soskin.
Betty Reid Soskin’s life as a musician
Music for Soskin was never a career pursuit but instead a safe haven. She started singing and writing songs to cope with the stresses of being a mom of four children while living in a predominantly white suburban neighborhood.
Although her music is hard to find, Soskin did record her music. Two well-known songs are “Little Boy Black” and “Ebony, the Night.” The two songs are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum of emotions. The first song was inspired by her involvement in Black nationalism, a song filled with biting lyrics. “Ebony, the Night,” is more melodic and jazzy.
Another infamous song from Soskin is titled “Your Hand In Mine,” written in 1964, about the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. Throughout the era, Soskin used her music to support her beliefs in ending inequality.
It wasn’t until 2018 that Soskin brought her music to a bigger arena by performing with the Oakland Symphony and Chorus.
The oldest national park ranger
When asked about being a park ranger, Soskin said, “Someone dropped a uniform on the life that I was already leading” (Washington Post).
As Soskin’s life continued, she got a job with the state legislator, leading to her position at the City of Richmond, working with the national park services of NPS. Her role in the park was crucial because she had the opportunity to tell the untold stories of African Americans and Japanese Americans during World War II. When NPS started developing a plan for the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, Soskin stepped in to ensure the stories of marginalized voices were being told. At the budding age of 84, Soskin started a temporary working position that led to a permanent position where she shared her personal memories and experiences with visitors of the park.
Soskin spent years sharing her story and ensuring that history stayed alive through her words. Being the oldest national park ranger and one of many notable Black women in history, she has received much fame and recognition. On March 22, 2022, Soskin retired at the age of 100. However, she has shared through interviews that she is excited to see what else life has in store for her.
Soskin is the definition of living a full life, which is why she is viewed as one of many influential Black women in history. Amongst her many roles, jobs, and careers, she always stood up for others; she continued to fight injustices and carried herself with grace and passion. Whether she wears the title of oldest park ranger, activist, or mother, she can undoubtedly hold the crown for being an unstoppable and influential woman.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.