Ms. Soskin’s life has had so many twists and turns it’s hard to keep them straight: She’s been a suburban mother, antiwar activist, musician, business owner, faculty wife, community advocate, political aide, blogger and, of course, park ranger. “I’ve always pushed out old stuff and made room for the new,” she said.
She was born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit in 1921. She spent her early years in New Orleans, where her close-knit family’s Creole and Cajun roots ran deep. In 1927, after their home was destroyed in the Great Mississippi Flood, the family moved to a racially mixed neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., where her father and uncles worked as waiters and Pullman porters, and lived in a tight-knit, socially conservative, devoutly Catholic Creole world.
They were a decade ahead of the war mobilization that would bring millions pouring into California to work in defense-related industries, including some 500,000 African Americans, largely from the South, in what has been called the largest voluntary westward Black migration in American history.
For many who came west, the war years brought increased opportunity, and rising expectations, which would help fuel the civil rights and women’s movements. For Ms. Soskin, who had grown up in racially mixed neighborhoods and schools, it also brought her first experiences with overt, formal segregation.
When the war started, she took a job in an Air Force office, where she was surprised to realize she was passing for white. She set the record straight, and asked if she would still get her promotion. The answer was no. “I walked out on the U.S. government and told them to shove it,” she later wrote in her 2018 memoir “Sign My Name to Freedom.”
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