The way Betty Reid Soskin tells it, she didn’t work until she was 49. That’s if you don’t count working at the family music store, raising four children, or her first job working for the Boilermakers Union, Auxiliary 36, during World War II. “Unions had yet to be integrated,” says Soskin, 20 years old at the time. “Auxiliaries like this one, with no power, were set up for black people.”
Until then, segregation had only been an abstraction that her parents, occasionally talked about. Dorson and Lottie Charbonnet lost everything in the New Orleans floods of 1927, when Betty was four. “That’s how we wound up in California, to join my mother’s father, who’d come during the first World War,” she recounts. It wasn’t until the next war that her father, a millwright, could get back into building. Until then he took any work he could find, including in a lunch car on the Southern Pacific Railroad — a job he almost didn’t get “because he wasn’t black enough. He was Creole, and very light-skinned.”
Typical of their working-class neighborhood, her parents spoke a different language at home. In her house it was a patois of French, in others, Italian or Portuguese. “We had our own lives,” Soskin recalls. “I was never sure whether we were set apart or whether we just preferred being together.” The kids all played together in English, because progress meant joining the mainstream.
The Second World War changed everything. Thanks to Henry Kaiser, a cement contractor with an 8th grade education, the Bay Area became the nerve center for the war in the Pacific. “He’d never built a ship in his life, but he decided there was no reason why he couldn’t apply Henry Ford’s prefabrication techniques for the automotive industry and build ships a lot faster,” Soskin explains:
So he sent recruiters out to five southern states — Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi — and brought back sharecropping people, both black and white, because these were the people who were first hit by the Depression. Kaiser wasn’t trying to conduct a social experiment but to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them, and he did. He and his workers built 747 ships in something over four years and seven months. That was launching a ship on the order of every other day.
As an outreach specialist with the National Park Service, Soskin now gives tours of Shipyard III, where Kaiser pulled this off with his motley crew of sharecroppers. Along with them came segregation, “because in the South those people wouldn’t have been sharing drinking fountains, or schools or hospitals, for another 20 years,” Soskin points out. “So those of us who were already here — there were no more than 8,000 African Americans in the whole East Bay — were caught up in this new social system.” At the time, 91% of African American women were working either in agriculture or as maids and housekeepers, and success was defined by marrying well. At twenty-one she did: to Mel Reid, a handsome halfback graduating from the University of San Francisco.
Five years later the couple’s little business, Reid’s Records in Berkeley, was successful enough that the couple was reading Sunset Magazine and planning their dream house. It couldn’t be built in the city, banks still controlled who could get mortgages, so they got a white person to buy property in the suburb of Walnut Creek. Soskin says that’s where she grew up. There were noises from the “the improvement society” about getting the young black family to move somewhere else. There were efforts to befriend them, some more welcome than others, from other community members. (In the first audio clip, Soskin explains why she declined a neighbor’s dinner party invitation.) There was the time a parent suggested she check out the upcoming play at the school, where hers was the only black kid. It turned out to be a minstrel show, starring the teachers and the principal in blackface. In the second audio clip, Soskin describes her confrontation with the principal.
“Now it doesn’t mean that the next summer that the PTA didn’t do an Aunt Jemima Pancake Breakfast,” Soskin acknowledges wryly. “But I think I was radicalized by the realization that that it wasn’t enough just to know and believe things. That you had to act on those beliefs in some way.” It was the ‘60s, after all, and political change was in the wind. Her church, the Unitarian Universalist church, funded Soskin to attend Black Power conferences throughout the country. And eventually, the same community that had been so vicious when she moved in sent her as a McGovern delegate to the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.
Soskin describes herself as a responder rather than as an initiator, “which is really peculiar,” she acknowledges, “because at 85 I was still getting job offers.” The fact is that even as an isolated suburban housewife with a high-school education, she possessed a clear moral vision and the courage to pursue it. As a result, her life has had very different chapters: “Someone said in an article that I reinvented myself more often than Madonna,” she recounts with a laugh. Propelling this reinvention is a rare trait. Unlike most people, who settle comfortably into the inertia of the familiar, Soskin is “always looking for what’s new. I think I really do embrace change.” More soon about the next chapters of her remarkable life. For a preview, check out her blog and its links to rich family and local history.