A podcast about history

That's not stuck in the past


Betty Reid Soskin is a living link to America’s long history of slavery. As a young woman, Betty’s best friend was her great-grandmother, who was enslaved for the first two decades of her life. When she attended the inauguration of Barack Obama Betty carried a photo of her great-grandma in her breast pocket – and she also carried memories of the many struggles that led to the election of America’s first black president.

In this episode, Betty Reid Soskin shares stories of growing up in Oakland during the 1920s “when the hills used to burn every year.” She traces her journey from working in a segregated union hall during World War II to co-founding one of the East Bay’s first black record stores to becoming “America’s oldest National Park ranger” at the age of 85. And she explains how living for nearly a century has allowed her to see patterns in history that give her hope for the future.

Betty Reid Soskin’s return to work following a brutal home invasion assault became a national news story in 2016. President Barack Obama replaced the commemorative coin that was stolen during the attack. [Photo: Rosie the River WWII Homefront National Park]

Even though Betty’s 98th birthday is approaching, she’s still incredibly active. She recently published an autobiography, “Sign My Name to Freedom,” she’ll be releasing an album of her music next year, and a documentary about her life “No Time to Waste” will be premiering throughout the Bay Area starting later this month. Plus, she’s still delivering her renowned presentations to sold-out crowds at Rosie the River WWII Homefront National Park several times per week. Betty has no plans to retire any time soon. “As long as there are faces in that audience who have never heard those stories, they simply come alive for me,” she told me during our interview. You can listen to the whole conversation here, on Spotify, or your preferred podcast app.

Do you want to hear more East Bay Yesterday? Please donate to help keep this show alive: www.patreon.com/eastbayyesterday

Betty’s relatives, The Charbonnet family, in 1926. To learn more about Betty’s life, check out this interview conducted by the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley in 2002.
Betty spent decades researching her family’s history and honors her ancestors with this wall of photos in her Richmond, CA, apartment.
Betty in 1942, shortly before her wedding to Mel Reid. Later that year, the newlyweds moved into a duplex on Sacramento St. in Berkeley.
The Richmond office of the Boilermakers, a shipyard labor union that employed Soskin as a clerk in 1942.  [Caption: Rosie the River WWII Homefront National Park; Photo: E.F. Joseph]
Betty’s presentations challenge popular mythologies about Rosie the Riveter, such as the concept that World War II was the first time American women entered the work force.
During World War II, the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, produced 747 vessels, “a feat not equaled anywhere else in the world, before or since.” Between 1940 and 1943, the city’s population jumped from 23,600 to more than 93,700 residents. [Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library]
Before it was renovated into The Craneway Pavilion, the former Ford Assembly Plant located next to the Rosie the Riveter National Park visitor’s center was mostly abandoned for decades. During World War II, this auto plant was reconfigured to produce jeeps, tanks, and other combat vehicles.
Despite many challenges, including having her windows blown out, Betty rescued her family’s shop Reid’s Records, from the brink of bankruptcy. This photo originally appeared in a 1989 edition of East Bay Express.
Betty, seen here inside The Craneway Pavilion, plans to release an album of her music next year. She began writing and performing in the 1960s to cope with feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. In 2018, she performed onstage at Oakland’s historic Paramount Theater with the Oakland Symphony.

Do you want to hear more East Bay Yesterday? Please donate to help keep this show alive: www.patreon.com/eastbayyesterday


Betty Reid Soskin’s century of chaos and hope
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