Betty Reid-Soskin leads tour of Richmond’s treasures
on March 6, 2012
A lot of Betty Reid Soskin’s emotions find articulate outlets. Ninety years of life, a sharp memory and a lucid mind do that for her.
Standing in late February at the last exhibit of the free tour she gives every few weeks of the Rosie the Riveter Memorial National Park, Soskin shared with her tour group why this place is so important.
“It’s amazing how far ahead than the rest of the country the Bay Area is, and people have settled here because of that,” Soskin said, referring to activism and social movements toward equality. “We have now made it a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we believe that anything is possible here.”
Soskin paused and looked out at the metal pier that represents the stern of a ship built during Richmond’s World War II mobilization. “That’s probably our gift to the world. And that’s all recorded here,” Soskin said.
On Saturday, Soskin did what she has for hundreds of people over the years: Given a free narrated tour of Richmond’s historic sites to men, women and children eager to learn this unique story. The tour begins with old newsreel clips from the WWII era. Those are then juxtaposed with an audio-visual slideshow Soskin prepared herself that specifically looks at the African American experience in Richmond during the war.
“My interest in this park was always sparked by what was not there,” in the popular history, Soskin said, noting that only with time and further research has much of the experience of minority cultures in World War II, like African Americans and Japanese Americans, come to light.
From there, Soskin leads tour-goers, driven in a shuttle bus, to various sites throughout the city: Atchison Village, Shipyard #3, the SS Red Oak Victory ship, the Ford Assembly Plant, the Maritime Child Development Center, Nystrom Neighborhood, the Kaiser Field Hospital, and the Rosie the Riveter Memorial at Marina Bay Park.
Richmond’s National Historical Park, which has sites throughout Richmond, is the biggest concentration of intact WWII historic structures and sites in the United States, and they are integrated into a bustling and changing city in an unprecedented way, Soskin said.
“What we often forget is how young this city is,” Soskin said, noting that the sleepy, sparsely populated bayside town was born anew with the influx of more than 100,000 people during WWII. “The park’s greatest gift to the people of Richmond is this preserving, discovering and sharing our shared history. There is no limit to how rich this experience can be.”
At various points during Saturday’s tour, the lean and spry Soskin alternated between jocularity, profundity and fierce commitment. Various ethnic strains of Richmond’s history must be preserved and celebrated, Soskin said, adding that she hoped that with further research and training the National Park staff might one day be able to provide “culturally specific” tours to the public.
On the African American history and contribution to Richmond, Soskin said it was important to not only be educated about the past, but to keep the community intact in the future. African Americans “need to put down roots, and not be gentrified out,” she said.
Soskin was born in Detroit. Like many African American families, her parents came west to Oakland in the late 1920s. During World War II Soskin worked as a clerk for an all-black union auxiliary. She was here to see the history she now teaches people about.
From her experiences, Soskin has developed a nuanced theory on history, one she shares on her tours. In the throes of World War, tremendous change was forced, most acutely in Richmond, she said. It was messy (“There was no time for encounter groups or diversity training”), inefficient (“Because of racial prejudice, we fought with one hand tied behind our back”), and sometimes brutal (“There’s a defensive war, but no such thing as a good war”), but the advance of social equality was undeniable, Soskin said.
“Social change is an irresistible force,” Soskin said. “And [Richmond] was an incubator for rapid social change.”
In addition to her tours, Soskin continues a strenuous schedule of local appearances and speaking engagements. She even maintains an active social network identity, often sharing her news analysis, opinions and upcoming events on her Facebook page.
Soskin remains driven. The “heroic generation” that forged much of the reality Richmond knows today is “in nursing homes throughout the city,” Soskin said, but the history must be refined and improved and passed onto the children.
Richmond “was the site of the greatest mobilization of human power since the pyramids,” Soskin said. “There is hope for the future in the story of what we accomplished in the past.”
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