When she was 85 years old, Betty Reid Soskin began her new career as a national park ranger.
She is now 96 and the oldest active national park ranger in the country — with no plans to slow down.
In her role at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, Soskin is an interpretive ranger, leading visitors on tours around the park. But it’s her rich and unusual backstory that makes her tours so special to attend.
Soskin’s great-grandmother was born into slavery and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. She was born in Detroit in 1921. Soskin worked at a segregated union hall as a file clerk during World War II. She was a visible political and community activist and even found success as a songwriter in the civil rights movement.
But it wasn’t until 2000 that she began work with the National Park Service. When the NPS was researching the formation of the Rosie the Riveter Park, Soskin was a consultant on the project. She was the only person of color in the room and became an integral part of making sure the park didn’t erase its history of racial segregation, including separate cemetery plots for black bodies. “What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering,” she told NPR.
She was recognized by President Obama, given a coin with the presidential seal in 2015, and awarded the silver service medallion by the National WWII Museum. But last year an intruder broke into her home, beat her, and stole her commemorative coin. Just three weeks later, she returned to work.
“I had to move the lens out,” Soskin said at a press conference when she returned to the park. “I began to see myself as part of the whole. The violence we are suffering individually is an expression of what we are all what we are experiencing collectively.” Today, her tours fill up weeks, if not months, in advance.
Soskin has been blogging actively about her life since 2003. She most recently wrote about her encounter with internet fame last week, saying: “This morning, as I sit here at my computer that counter is approaching 4.9 million, with 77,000 shares! What could possibly explain this? Can it be that the nation is so filled with despair that a tiny good news story about a lil’ ole lady park ranger should hit a nerve bringing this much attention?”