Ever since 2002, the California Studies Association has presented the Carey McWilliams Award to a writer, scholar or artist who lives up to the best tradition of McWilliams’ work. That is, someone whose artistic vision, moral force and intellectual clarity give voice to the people of California, their needs and desires, sufferings, struggles and triumphs. At a deeply moving event held on October 9, this year’s award was presented to Betty Reid Soskin.
A political activist raised in Oakland and Berkeley, and currently America’s oldest park ranger, at 94 years, Betty Reid Soskin currently works as an interpretive ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Her participation and activism in the creation of the park itself was instrumental in the ways Rosie the Riveter incorporates and memorializes the African American history of Richmond and the greater Bay Area region.
In choosing Soskin as this year’s Carey McWilliams awardee, CSA recognized her creative and political work in contributing to historical knowledge of California, and especially the experiences of African Americans during and after World War II. Accompanying Ms. Reid at the award was Tom Leatherman, Superintendent of four National Park Service historic sites in the East Bay. Below is her acceptance speech.
The National Park Service [celebrating its centennial] only has five years on me!
In 1942 I came into Richmond as a clerk in a Jim Crow segregated union hall… that would be decades before the racial integration of the labor movement. So, in order to comply with [Henry J.] Kaiser’s wishes, labor created what was called “auxiliaries” – a fancy name for Jim Crow, One in Sausalito, one in West Oakland, the other at Richmond – Boilermaker’s Auxiliary #36, which is where I went every day.
If you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you all the shipyard workers were black. They were the only people I saw every day. The people who came up to my window to have their addresses changed, which is what I was doing on 3×5” file cards to save the world for democracy. And, as we all know, it worked.
I would return 15 years ago to Richmond, after more than 20 years as a suburban housewife, after raising four kids to adulthood, after outliving two husbands, after learning lots of lessons over lots of decades. I returned to Richmond as a Field Representative of the California State Assembly. I’d started under Dion Aroner, and when she termed out I stayed on as a Field Representative for her successor, Loni Hancock, who herself is now terming out.
That arc of my life, from when I was 20 to 15 years ago, is a solid indication of how much social change has happened in this nation in those intervening years. That’s not, by any means, a case of personal achievement. Not for one minute. That’s an indication of what we all did, all of us, black and brown, and yellow, and straight and gay, and trans, it’s what we all did. Right here, in the Bay Area, during those years, from 1942 to 1945.
And some of us did it kicking and screaming. Some of us are still kicking and screaming. But nonetheless, because of what happened right here, enough of us completed that full trajectory that my life so well indicates. It’s still out of the greater Bay Area that social change continues to radiate out into the rest of the country. That’s something we can all buy into, that’s something we lived.
There were lots of steps in that process. But only Henry Kaiser would dare to bring in a workforce of 98,000 black and white southerners into a city with a population of 23,000. He did that not only because he knew he could revolutionize shipbuilding by introducing the mass production techniques Henry Ford used in the auto industry, but he knew where the greatest pool of available workers lay in the country – in five southern states: Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.
He brought people into a city who would not be sharing drinking fountains, schools, hospitals, housing, even cemeteries – any kind of public accommodations –for another 20 years back in their places of origin. That’s would not be happening until the 1960s.This was 1942. With no chance for diversity training or focus groups!
They had to negotiate, at the individual level, every single day, how to get through it without killing each other.
If you knew the sequence in which they were hired – first it was the men who were too old to fight, then boys too young to be drafted, then single white women. When that pool was exhausted, married white women. In 1943 the first black men were hired only as trainees and helpers, to do the heavy lifting for the women they’d brought on board.
And though there were some, few, black women who worked as laborers picking up trash and sweeping the decks while other people worked. It wasn’t until late 1944 and early 1945 when black women began to be trained as welders.
If you know this sequence, then you know that those pictures of all of us – black and brown and yellow and straight and gay, all standing together having our pictures taken as brothers and sisters expressing the cooperation of the great Second World War brotherhood period – we have to know it was late in the war, because you couldn’t have gotten them to stand together and have their pictures taken in 1942.
But those pictures indicate, solidly, the pace of social change, which set us up for what was to happen in the 1960s. Those people were all living under the common threat of Fascism and world domination, and they could only take on the mission of their leader, which was to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them. They were working around the clock, three shifts a day, 364 days a year.
Henry Kaiser, a man I’m told referred to the bow of a ship as “the pointy end,” completed 747 ships in three years and eight months. And that was enough.
That social change, set up in those days, has significance for all our lives. Social change continues to radiate out from where we are into the rest of the country. We have been leading since 1942. And that’s the story I get to tell. I may be leading the only Federally-funded revolution in the country.
We are all ready to have these conversations now, we are ready at our park. And across the country, that’s beginning to happen. It’s possible now because, as Tom [Leatherman] says, it’s not just the environmental movement, or protecting the wildlife, or the protection of historic wildlands. What we are dealing with now, ever since about 1970, is the history and culture of this country. It’s now possible to revisit almost any era in this nation – the heroic places, the contemplative places, the scenic wonders, the shameful places, and the painful places, in order to own that history so that we may process it in order to forgive ourselves in order that we may all be able to move into a more compassionate future. And the National Park Service is leading that fight.
Thank you so much for this award. I am deeply honored.
[Thanks to Lisbet Tellefsen for the recording from which this transcript was made. Kaiser shipyard newspaper illustrations by Emmy Lou Packard. Photos are by Bryan Gibel, the director/cinematographer behind Sign My Name to Freedom, a feature-length documentary film in production about Betty Reid Soskin’s work as a singer/songwriter during the 1960s and 1970s, and the great social transformations she’s participated in over nine decades in California.]