My Life As An Original Rosie The Riveter

Betty Reid Soskin, 97, is a national park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She is currently the oldest ranger in the United States. During World War II, she worked as a file clerk at Boilermakers Union A-36. In 2018, she released a memoir titled “Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life.” Below, she reflects on a selection of her journal entries from 2003 and 2004, in which she wrote about the park’s early days, as well as her feelings on being labeled a “Rosie.”

I’d never gone back to re-read these pieces, and find myself able to do so now as if in the “third person,” as if written by someone else. As such, there is a newness in the words, and — since these posts were written contemporaneously — I’m not sure I knew they’d be as powerful as I now read them to be. I was processing life as it was being lived during those years, and not writing for any public audience, but to “leave tracks” of my life for my progeny after my death. I’d been frustrated for years by the fact that it was impossible to keep track of the women of my family because their names changed through marriage or circumstance, and they’d become lost. I started an online journal in order to leave a record of my own life for those who follow. I’ve never written for some unseen audience, but for clarification for myself, alone, and for those children and grandchildren who will succeed me in life.

Reading back through these essays is an unanticipated adventure, and I’m glad to see a consistency in that life as lived, and that I’m still guided by I know not what — but whatever it is, it’s effectively guiding my way forward.

September 30, 2003

Due to the hard work of California Congressman George Miller and the due diligence of a small National Park Service (NPS) team named only a year or so ago, the work of choosing the historic components that best tell the story of the home front support system created by Henry J. Kaiser is officially underway. 

Many are now too young to recall, but shortly after the first bombs dropped at Pearl Harbor, Henry J. Kaiser, whose company had by that time completed the construction of the Grand Coulee and Hoover Dams, opened the first of the war-created shipyards in Richmond, California; commandeered the railroads; and — in an endless stream of railroad cars — brought in thousands upon thousands of sharecroppers and tenant farmers from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi to build the victory ships that would supply arms and the stuff of life to the Pacific war theater. In a mass production model called prefabrication, borrowed from Henry Ford, he brought people with little or no skills and of all races to become the formidable shipbuilders in the race to win the war against world domination by fascist forces, and stop the Axis in its tracks. 

You must remember the context in which all this occurred: These were Blacks and whites who at the time were not even sharing drinking fountains back in their places of origin. These were men and women who had never shared tools nor been in the same work environments. This was during the time when women were expected to stay at home to bear and rear the children. Yet — despite inexperience, and in many instances, little or no formal education or prior training — they completed and launched a ship every five days (747 over the course of the war), working night and day, ceaselessly. A monumental feat deserving of a national park to honor their effort. These were the extraordinary ordinary folks whose contribution to saving of the world will now be celebrated with the Rosie The Riveter WWII/Home Front National Historical Park.

You must remember the context in which all this occurred: These were Blacks and whites who at the time were not even sharing drinking fountains back in their places of origin.

The planning session for this park was the second I’ve participated in, having been named to the team by my office and as liaison from the city, as well. There were perhaps 35 to 40 experts in the room: marine engineers, city planners, architects, historians, developers, National Park Service staff, writers, scientists and me. But my name tag said not field representative, nor city liaison — nor did it honor the fact that I represent the state of California which holds liens on much of the land that lies beneath the Ford Assembly Plant, an important component of the new national park. My name tag said, simply, “Former Rosie.” It was an innocent sin of omission. I’m aware that, in this younger group, I’m serving as a kind of icon of an era and valued for my “historic” value. But I was not to be allowed peer status. (And, yes, I brought their attention to this oversight when the proper moment came).

I learned during this early planning session how history becomes revisionist. 

At the war’s end, and within only a few weeks (under prior agreement with the government), every one of the temporary war housing structures where African Americans had been assigned were demolished. The discovery that — along with the rest — Ku Klux Klansmen had arrived, and the occasional cross-burning was not uncommon. The “auxiliary” (segregated) union hall (Boilermakers A-36) was razed, in the expectation, I suppose, that now that the war was over those black folks would just go home. Not so. Didn’t happen. You can’t go home again, at least not to a hostile South and dead end living. You put down your tools, picked up whatever it would take to earn your way, and went on living — in place. 

You can’t go home again, at least not to a hostile South and dead end living. You put down your tools, picked up whatever it would take to earn your way, and went on living — in place. 

In the new plan before us, the planning team was taken on a bus tour of the buildings that will be restored as elements in the park. They consisted of modest bungalows, mostly duplexes and triplexes that were constructed “for white workers only.” In many cases, the descendants of those workers still inhabit those homes. They’re now historic landmarks and are on the national registry as such. 

Since we’re “telling the story of America through structures,” how in the world do we tell this one? And in looking around the room, I realized that it was only a question for me. It held no meaning for anyone else.

No one in the room realized that the story of Rosie the Riveter is a white woman’s story. I, and women of color, would not be represented by this park as proposed: Many of the sites names in the legislation I remember as places of racial segregation — and as such, they may be enshrined by a generation that has forgotten that history.

There is no way to explain the continuing 40% African American presence in this city’s population without including their role in World War II. There continues to be a custodial attitude toward this segment of the population, with outsiders unaware of the miracle of those folks who dropped their hoes and picked up welding torches to help to save the world from the enemy. Even their grandchildren have lost the sense of mission and worthiness without those markers of achievement and “membership” in the effort to save the world. 

And, yes, I did tell them. And, I have no idea what they’ll do with the information, but I did feel a sense of having communicated those thoughts effectively to well-meaning professionals who didn’t know what in hell to do with the information. 

I was a “Rosie” who never saw a ship during that time. The little union hall that I worked in as a young file clerk has long since been destroyed. It was far enough away from the shipyards to have gotten lost over time as memories dimmed. My memory has either censored all relationship to the period, or I never felt a part of the war effort at all. I did not arrive west at the start of the war. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I was an anomaly. 

My family had come from New Orleans at the end of World War I to join my grandfather who preceded them. My maternal ancestors had originally immigrated to the Americas in 1631 from France by way of Nova Scotia and Maryland. My father’s people arrived before the Louisiana Purchase, also from France. And on both sides, were the ancestors who had come in the early 1600s as chattel, in the Middle Passage, untraceable through the dark curtain of slavery. 

I am a part of the story now being told, and I will do everything that I can to restore the missing chapters … but the challenge is daunting, indeed.

I am a part of the story now being told, and I will do everything that I can to restore the missing chapters … but the challenge is daunting, indeed.

August 7, 2004

The period of WWII has always been difficult to call up. Never had the sense of patriotism that I saw evidenced in others. It was a time of confusion for me. Was barely 20 when the war was declared, and newly married. The world changed around me so dramatically that it felt as though the ground had given way, and that an entirely new state was born under my feet. Our population increased by over 200,000 in the Bay Area almost overnight. Segregation arrived full-blown in all of its virulence. In the way that our minds tend to protect us, mine had pretty much blotted out the pain of that time, and I only remember it in fragments.

As I wrote some time ago, there was a recent invitation for me to visit the White House (with others) to be honored as “Rosies.” I declined the invitation. I have always hung back from these celebrations, and had such painfully mixed feelings about being considered such, but other than honestly expressing my reluctance openly — I continued to smile about it, and to bury the anguish. Another African American worker was chosen.

I spent some of those war years as a clerk in the office of Boilermakers A-36 on Barrett Avenue in Richmond. We were a few miles from the Kaiser Shipyards, and millions of miles away from the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. The “A” in A-36 stands for “Auxiliary,” meaning that the unions were not yet integrated, and that there was a separate black union. It also meant that those cards that I spent those years filing in long trays held the information for all African American shipyard workers — and that I knew that “trainee” was written after the name of every black worker. That, by agreement, so that at war’s end, no black worker would be in competition for jobs with white workers in the area.

It meant that, also overnight, the population of the city of Richmond had grown by 110,000 — hands brought up from the Southern states (Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, mostly) to build the ships. They came from the tenant farms — black and white — and cotton fields to the West. They’d not yet shared drinking fountains, voting rights, public accommodations, and wouldn’t for another 15 years. They brought the Ku Klux Klan to the West, as well.

As I sat before my computer over this past week, doing data entry from blue sheets, I see that “Rosies” worked as riveters, welders, inspectors, buckers, burners, makers of ammo, etc., and I feel the old pain of discrimination. I’d spent the war filing discriminatory cards for black workers who could not rise above trainee status. And, I’d done it in a Jim Crow union hall, at that. To have myself embraced as a “Rosie” at this stage in life seems strangely inappropriate.

There seems to be a step missing in the process. I’m not even sure what that step is, just that it’s missing. Maybe it’s like reparations. I need someone to apologize, maybe, or to at least recognize that a wrong was done to young people — like I was then. I was just as bright and capable then as now, sans some life experience that has deepened what was naturally inherent in that pretty young Betty.

This week, as I entered the relevant information from each of the over 400 “blue sheets” of the proud Rosies into the data bank, I felt the long-held resentment pushing up from somewhere deep within. It expressed itself in fatigue that sent me to bed each evening feeling depressed, with no sense of just why.

I’m far too “civilized” and reasonable to deal with those feelings openly. Nothing to do but try to squish them down from whence they’ve come, and continue to “do the work.” I’ve spent a lifetime of doing just that. I recognize it as a part of the concept of “white privilege,” that is so poorly understood by most who enjoy it. It’s so hard to defend against, since to attack that kind of tainted innocence seems beneath the intelligence of those of us who suffer from its effects. It’s all so complicated, and so terribly old and tired.

Will just continue the work and bury the feelings until I can either move past the smoldering long-held anger, or, find some way to transform those feelings into something that I can use.

We’ll see.

There’s something to be said for the writing of it. The work in this project may be a blessing. I’ll have to confront and maybe finally put to rest some of the rage that I’ve buried over a long lifetime. That I have “overcome” is probably an understatement. Maybe this blog has allowed me the space to record that journey in ways that speaks to others. Maybe, too, this final assignment — this Rosie Memorial Project — is uniquely suited to allow for the lifting of the burden of my times.

In a way, I’m finding that the creation of this national park may present the opportunity for the recollections of a war through the eyes of woman — being told through her feminine stories and artifacts — will differ significantly from the memories of men who tell their stories through body counts and the machines of wars.

I’m beginning to see this work as a way to contribute to something historic. Giving up the rage may help in that process.

September 6, 2004

When I let myself dwell on the fact that the present black population of this city are the descendants of those heroic sharecropper “come-Westers,” I’m so touched. The word “toleration” comes to mind and brings up the bile to the back of my throat. These struggling under-educated and hard-working people didn’t have a chance. Due to the prevailing racism, they were abandoned without the ability to climb out of the poverty as had their equally poorly-educated and hard-working white counterparts. It is ironic that, in future years, they would be blamed for their inability to move into the mainstream with little consideration of the root causes. Despite unequal status in all avenues of life — segregation in the unions and in housing and lack of education in most cases — they nonetheless picked up the tools to help to build the ships and went to war on the back of the damned bus! Most would be consigned to be the chambermaids and cooks and valets with no opportunity to rise above their stations in life, in or out of the Armed Forces. Black men fought the war in racially segregated units headed by white commanding officers. Black women stepped in to earn 35-50 cents an hour as housekeepers and babysitters so that white women could become the Rosies of the day. They would not be allowed into the war plants until 1944. None of the aircraft plants were ever racially integrated, though the shipyards did so with some important caveats, like working out of Jim Crow powerless union auxiliaries.

Since existing history is dominated by the white experience, I’m seeing the need to contact members of the Japanese community, the Italian-Americans whose lives were impacted uniquely, and the German immigrant community that was forced to move 100 miles from the coastline. These, too, are important home front stories. These are American stories. It was in those years that the seeds of discontent were planted that would burst forth 15-20 years hence in the greatest social revolution of the century — the days of Dr. King and Malcolm X, the Kennedys, and Fanny Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Party.

I have to keep reminding myself of just how recent in time all that was. And, that the first African American schoolteacher hired in the state of California, U.C. Berkeley-educated Mrs. Ida Jackson, wasn’t hired until 1944!

The Rosie story is being well covered after years of neglect, and that’s just fine, I think. These stories are well worth the re-telling. But the truth is that that heroic generation of African Americans should not be tolerated, but celebrated! These were extraordinary human beings, and their children and grandchildren should be made aware of their dedication to the cause of freedoms they would not, themselves, enjoy for 15 to 20 more years — and in many cases, are still dreams unfulfilled.

Maybe through this new national park we can begin to confront our history in ways that are transformative and life-sustaining. The catharsis might be wonderful for us all. Perhaps it could not have happened until now. Maybe we’re ready to revisit those times, bolstered by the experience of the Sixties, Seventies, the Vietnam War, and current tragic misadventures in far off lands.

These African-Americans were extraordinary human beings, and their children and grandchildren should be made aware of their dedication to the cause of freedoms they would not, themselves, enjoy for 15 to 20 more years — and in many cases, are still dreams unfulfilled.

In reading back for corrections, I noticed that I’ve rarely said “we” in referring to the African American population of the time. Wondered about that until I realized that — I’m sure that I’ve been waiting all these years for ALL those strangers who invaded MY state to go home. My “we” is that population that existed before World War II, up to December 7th. My “we” was made up of those sturdy black pioneers who preceded the two world wars by many years — more closely related to the Civil War, actually. That’s changed since the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties, and my “we” has become broadened to include a host of cultures and peoples, and for that I’m grateful. Having re-invented myself decade by decade, my “we” now seems to encompass the entire planet!

I’ve come full circle, I think. My black pride fuels my efforts these days, and for that I’m grateful. Living off my black edge is where the richness is for me. Wish I could explain that better. Maybe someday, the words will come.

All entries originally appeared on Ms. Betty Reid Soskin’s blog, CBreaux Speaks, and have been reprinted here with her permission. They have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.