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Regional Interests

East Bay Middle School Renamed for Pioneering Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin — on Her 100th Birthd

Betty Reid Soskin on Wednesday received a big gift on an even bigger birthday.

On the day the oldest park ranger in the United States turned 100, the West Contra Costa School District renamed Juan Crespi Middle School in El Sobrante in her honor: Betty Reid Soskin Middle School.

Though confined to a wheelchair at Wednesday’s ceremony, the centenarian still works as a park guide — regularly drawing large crowds — at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, established in 2000, that she played a significant role in helping plan and develop.

Betty Reid Soskin cuts the ribbon during a school renaming ceremony on her 100th birthday.

Soskin — who is Black — is also known for her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as for co-founding Reid’s Records in Berkeley and working for former state Assemblymembers Dion Aroner and Loni Hancock.

She continues to teach park visitors about the contributions of women and African Americans to the war effort, and about the experience of Black home-front workers – which she has called an otherwise “missing” part of the story.

Soskin, who was showered with flowers and a birthday cake, thanked the speakers for their words.

A school official unveils a sign for the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School during the ceremony at the school in El Sobrante on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“I don’t know what one might do to justify a long life; I think that you have pretty much got it made,” Soskin said, after cutting the red ribbon officially marking the name change.

Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, who worked with Soskin during planning meetings to establish the new park, remarked on her insistence that it tell the truth of what really happened in the shipyards during World War II — both the good and the bad.

“I remember one of the first conversations I had with Betty about the new national park in Richmond, and she said ‘I’m not sure how I feel about this park yet. I have sort of a love-hate relationship with it,’ ” Gioia said.

The park, he noted, was intended to celebrate the war effort. “But there was a lot of racism and injustice that happened on the home front, like in the Kaiser shipyards. And Betty experienced some of that.”

Students at the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante wait to give gifts to the pioneering park ranger on her 100th birthday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“But Betty, as we know, doesn’t stop at just telling the truth,” Gioia added. “It’s been about changing that inequity and making it fair, and just, and equitable. So when you have someone that calls out the problems that other people don’t want to talk about, then moves to change that situation for the better …  What’s being recognized here is everything that Betty stood for.”

As the United States dramatically ramped up its wartime production effort during World War II, Soskin — who graduated from Oakland’s Castlemont High School — took a home-front job as a file clerk in a segregated unit of the historically all-white Boilermakers union,  which had resisted granting full membership to Black workers.

“What gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering,” Soskin told NPR in 2014, recalling her involvement in hashing out plans for the historical park in Richmond.

A birthday cake is presented to Betty Reid Soskin during a ceremony at the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on her 100th birthday on Sept. 22, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As the only person of color at the planning table, Soskin said she drew deeper connections between Richmond’s World War II-era home-front historic sites that define the park, and the long history of racial segregation that existed there. She told NPR she was “the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that.”

The West Contra Costa Unified School District’s Board of Education voted in June to rename the school came after eight months of deliberation. According to the district, social justice movements during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the school to assign students a project researching their former namesake, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, and the mission system’s exploitation of the Indigenous people living in California.

Betty Reid Soskin sits surrounded by family and friends on her 100th birthday during a ceremony for the newly renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in El Sobrante on Sept. 22, 2021.

Teachers and students said they wanted to honor a local community member who has long stood for equity and justice.

Anaya Zenad, a former student at the school, who is now a freshman in high school, led a series of community meetings and petitioned the district to rename the school for Soskin.

At Wednesday’s ceremony, Zenad wished Soskin a happy birthday and said the renaming process had been “a blast.”

“I learned a lot these past couple of months, being on the naming committee and doing the project in general,” Zenad said.

An attendee at the Sept. 22 renaming event holds a photo, showing Betty Reid Soskin in her park ranger uniform, standing next to a Rosie the Riveter impersonator. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Guthrie Fleischman, the school’s principal, expressed his gratitude to Soskin.

“I’ve been in this district for almost 20 years now. I can’t think of another time where I’ve seen a community as inspired as this community is by attaching themselves to your name,” he said. “I see it in the eyes of the teachers, I see it in the parents, I see it in the kids. Your graciousness in you allowing to name our school after you, has changed the trajectory of education on this campus.”

California Superintendent of Public Instruction  Tony Thurmond, who attended the event, grew emotional when talking about what the new name will mean to kids in the community.

“We have someone who has fought for civil rights, for women’s rights, for racial justice, and our children deserve to have someone to look up to,” he said.

This post includes reporting from Tony Hicks of Bay City News.

Copyright 2021 KQED