RICHMOND, CALIF. —
America’s scenic National Park System was started in 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, but natural wonders are not the only protected showcases.
Many U.S. cities are alive with history, and the park service decided in 1981 to create urban national parks. Thirteen years ago, the entire city of Richmond, California - across the bay from San Francisco - became a national park for its unique contribution to the war effort during World War II.
Witness to history
At 92, Betty Soskin
is the oldest ranger in the park service.
She was a young African-American woman working in Richmond in 1942, as the city was transformed by the home front war effort.
Industrialist Henry Kaiser, who built the Hoover Dam in 1936, had come to the port city to build ships, first for the British and later for the U.S. Navy. Using the same assembly line techniques Henry Ford pioneered with automobiles, Kaiser revolutionized the shipping industry.
Betty Reid Soskin, 92, who witnessed Richmond's unique history firsthand, is the oldest ranger in the U.S. Park Service. (US Park Service)
“[He] brought in a workforce of black and white southerners because the greatest pool of unemployed people was in the five southern states of Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana," Soskin said. "These people were coming off the Great Depression, were coming off the mechanization of cotton, coming off the dustbowl and here were his [work] hands.”
Those 98,000 southerners, who came from a society in which the races were strictly segregated, suddenly found themselves in a community where racial discrimination wasn't as stark.
However, Soskin recalled, 1942 was not a year for social change; blacks and whites in Richmond remained apart.
“Because they were all living under common threat of fascist world domination, the goal could not be racial integration," she said. "The goal had to be that of Henry Kaiser’s, which was to build ships faster than the enemy could sink them."
By the end of the war, Henry Kaiser and his merry crew of sharecroppers had completed 747 ships in three years and eight months, literally launching a ship a day, a feat that has never been equaled since, according to Soskin.
Nearly six decades later, when Soskin returned to Richmond after raising her family, the city was fully integrated.
Urban national park
She served on the panel that created an urban national park in Richmond, with a history center that would tell the city's wartime story. She said her colleagues wanted the park to encompass the whole city, because buildings used in the home front effort were scattered throughout Richmond.
Soskin said they also wanted the story to be told accurately.
“We all seemed to agree that if we could revisit that era honestly as it was lived, that that truth was far more powerful than any of the myths that we made up about it over time,” she said.
One of those myths concerns Rosie the Riveter. A fictional icon, she has come to represent the thousands of women who worked in factories and shipyards like Kaiser’s during the war.
Soskin pointed out that although women entering the U.S. work force in large numbers was an important step, black women did not see the same benefits as white women.
Telling her story
Eight years ago, Soskin became a park ranger to tell the stories she wanted to tell, and to tell them her way
She leads bus tours to the Richmond buildings that were used in the wartime effort and talks about the city’s unique history. Some 40,000 tourists from all over the world visit what's now the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Park every year.
"She had in-depth information that I never thought about and I had no idea that was that way,” said one visitor.
“The fact that it took so long to open these doors for these other groups that came through and contributed so much, it just really made an impact on me," said another.
Soskin said a visit to Rosie the Riveter National Park can not only illuminate the truths of the past, but also inspire young generations to work together to confront the threats of the future.
"Rising sea levels, global warming, climactic change. And they are going to have to come up with an equal mobilization - this time internationally - in order to meet their challenge. And the models for that exist in that period of history between 1941 and 1945. Another reason to revisit a time when we came together for the common good," said Soskin.
Soskin pointed out that ordinary Americans, working together in Richmond, changed the course of World War II and of the United States. She calls it a fascinating story that she is privileged to tell.