Richmond’s Living Legends

on December 16, 2015

Editor’s Note: Youth isn’t only a matter of age. It may also be a state of mind. If that’s true, then Kay Morrison and Betty Soskin may be two of Richmond’s most youthful characters. They are real-life “Rosie the Riveters” of the World War II shipbuilding era, who helped transform Richmond and showed the world that women could do tough manual work. Now, they are feisty ambassadors of the city’s history, promoting such timeless notions as equal pay for equal work and the value of keeping up with “an evolving nation.” Richmond Confidential staff writer Brad Bailey spent some time with these two living legends in Washington D.C and Richmond as they reached important milestones.

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KAY MORRISON: From Chico to the night shift on Assembly Line 2

Kay Morrison had been waiting 72 years for this moment.

The charismatic 92-year-old with the electric smile and razor-sharp wit entertains audiences in a regular Friday program at the Rosie the Riveter museum in Richmond.

“Rosie the Riveter” is the iconic symbol of female independence and strength, celebrating the female workers who played a pivotal role in World War II shipbuilding. The museum, operated by the National Park Service, features photographs, films and educational exhibits all about the welders and other skilled trades taken up by women after the men went off to war duty.

Morrison was one of the “Rosies,” and they are still contributing. Now, they tell first-hand accounts of working at the shipyards just a few yards away.

During World War II, the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond played a pivotal role, building 747 ships with astonishing speed. People from all over the country arrived to work at the shipyards, and Richmond’s population swelled over to 100,000 people. Women became a key component in the war effort entering fields previously dominated by men.

Morrison, originally from Chico, recalled how she and her husband, Ray, moved to the Bay Area when his failing eyesight forced a change in career plans. In February 1942, she showed up at the Boilermaker Union Hall, greeted by a sign saying, “No Women or Coloreds” allowed. However, in January 1943, bowing to pressure to increase output in the nation’s factories, the signs came down, and Morrison went to work.

She took her test to be certified as a journeyman welder and passed on the first try. She worked the graveyard shift on Assembly Line #2 for the next two years.

After the war, she worked at Bank of America until she retired. She and her husband stayed together until his death 64 years later.

In 2014, Morrison went with a delegation of “Richmond Rosies” to Washington, D.C., as special guests of Vice President Joseph Biden. During the trip, they were featured on “Good Morning America” and interviewed by host Lara Spencer.

In October 2015, the Rosies were on hand as Governor Brown signed the California Fair Pay Act, which seeks to minimize the wage gap between men and women. The California legislation is considered the toughest of its kind in the nation.

That was a special moment for Morison.

“We’re still a little ways away from having everything equal for equal ways,” she said, addressing a group that gathered at the museum for the bill-signing ceremony. “We have to do something about it.”

Angie Coffey of Walnut Creek, a visitor at the museum, credited Morrison and her peers for laying ground for generations of women who followed.

“[It’s impressive] to see how alive they are and how articulate and how much they could formulate the thoughts about what happened to them back them.  I love how that they were trailblazers 60 or 70 years before their time,” Coffey said.

On Fridays, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Morrison tells the story of her time in Richmond during the war. On Thanksgiving weekend, about 350 people strolled in to listen to her and other real-life Rosies.

Claire Phillips and her two children, Kate and Ty, drove from Davis to check out the museum after seeing a documentary on television about Betty Soskin, the oldest National Park Service Ranger in the United States.

“My kids didn’t have school today, and it was rainy in the valley, so we thought we would explore some of the national parks nearby,” she said.

While at the museum, she and her children saw a 17-minute documentary on the history of the female welders in the local shipyard. The film chronicled Richmond’s shipbuilding boom and addressed issues of race and gender during the war.

Phillips said that she learned a lot about Richmond from the museum experience.

“I just didn’t realize how diverse Richmond was. I also didn’t know how big of a part Richmond had in building ships,” she said, “You think of shipbuilding as an East Coast thing. You forget that it happened here in our backyard.”

When asked what lessons she wanted her children to take away from the experience, Phillips said, “I just want to them to have a better understanding of the time their great grandparents lived through. In school we don’t get time to spend on some of these stories so it’s good to take advantage of the museum and national park services.”

Morrison is also  outspoken with regard to current issues in Richmond.  “My hope for the future is that Richmond can return to the great city it was,”she said, “It’s a beautiful city and I know they’re working hard on Richmond right today.”

She has specific opinions on the future of Richmond’s youth.  “I see so many problems with the young people today not having enough for them to do. It’s not just Richmond, it’s everywhere,” she said, “They are coming up to be in these positions and they need help to become good citizens and education is the key.”

“I love my country and I want to see it healthy, and happy,” she said.

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BETTY SOSKIN:  A new light crowns long career

President Obama greeting Betty Soskin at the National Tree Lighting Ceremony at the White House (courtesy of The National Park Service)

President Obama greeting Betty Soskin at the National Tree Lighting Ceremony at the White House (courtesy of The National Park Service)

Steps away from the South Portico of the White House, bracing against the chilly 30-degree (F) weather, Richmond’s Betty Soskin was getting ready for an important debut.

At 94, Soskin is the nation’s oldest national park ranger, and was asked to introduce President Obama at the 93rd annual National Christmas Tree Lighting in Washington, D.C.

Since 1923, President’s Park, operated by the National Park Service, has hosted the holiday extravaganza. Each year, the president ushers in the holiday season along with celebrities and performers for a televised audience of millions.

This year’s event, one year before the Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, was hosted by actress Reese Witherspoon. When her turn came, Soskin noted how improbable it was that a woman whose great-grandmother was born in slavery was introducing the first African American president of the United States.

Soskin was accompanied to Washington by her granddaughters, in addition to Martha Lee, Acting Regional Director of the Pacific West Region of the National Park Service.

Lee discussed how Soskin was picked for the Tree Lighting Event. “Word of Betty’s unique story, which is representative of thousands of unique stories that are told in our national parks across the nation, came to the attention of the Dept. of the Interior and the White House,” she said.

Lee also believes that Soskin and the the Rosie the Riveter icon are instrumental symbols in the nation’s struggle for equality. “Rosie the Riveter is a place that honors the work of home front workers during WWII who helped win the war against fascism in the 1940’s,” she said, “Specifically women who really for the first time got jobs in the industry, in places like the shipyards. There are so many other stories that grew out of Rosie the Riveter- civil rights, health care, child care, and other critical stories.  The fact that Betty personally spanned time from that era to now is a moment in time that few of us are ever privileged to see.”

Born in 1921, Soskin spent her childhood in New Orleans until 1927, when her family moved to the Bay Area. During World War II, she worked as a clerk for Boilermakers Union A-36, an all black union auxiliary.

In 1945, she and her husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley, one of the successful few black-owned businesses of that time.  They moved to Walnut Creek in the 1950s. However, she and her husband faced death threats when they tried to build a home in an all-white suburb. In the 1960s she became a well-known songwriter for the civil rights movement. Years later, she became actively involved in the planning and development of a museum in Richmond honoring the work of women during the war.

In her role as park ranger for the Rosie the Riveter/WW II Home Front National Historic Park, Soskin conducts park tours and explains the park’s history for tourists.

“It was kind of a bookend experience of mine because I was here for the Inauguration,” she said, “This is a fitting end.”

“It’s something I could never imagine,” she said. Her great grandmother was born into slavery and died when Soskin was 27 years old. “You can’t start from there and even envision the possibility of a black president. You couldn’t even envision a black CEO,” she said.

“At 94 my sense of myself in the universe is so different from what it would have been even a decade ago,” she said,“I see myself as an evolving person in an evolving nation.”

Soskin goes on to say that her longevity has added considerable perspective to these current events.  “It’s very hard to not answer that question in my 10th decade without applying all the wisdom that’s been gathered over all those years. I would have answered that question differently in different periods,” she said, “I’m living in an expanded universe.”

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