By Cleo E. Brown
Betty Reid Soskin was born Betty Charbonnet on September 22nd, 1921 in Detroit, Michigan, to a Creole father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet, and a Cajun mother, Lottie Breaux. Betty's parents had been forced to flee New Orleans, Louisiana before her birth because her father had referred to a White man by his first name. The family remained in Detroit until Betty was two years old. They then returned to Louisiana until the flood and hurricane of 1927 forced her mother and her three little girls to relocate to Oakland, California where her maternal great grandfather lived.
Today at 99 years of age Betty Reid Soskin is still active and the oldest living park ranger in the United States. Betty attributes her age and remarkable good health to genetics. Her maternal great-grandmother lived until she was 101, her grandmother lived to be 102, her mother lived to be 107, and her father lived to 95. All were active until the time of their deaths. Betty, who says that the arc of her life from age 20 through age 96 included great social change and upheaval in the Black community. Extending this arc further includes her great grandmother's birth into slavery in 1846. Betty and her family witness incredible social changes including the end of Slavery; the Reconstruction; the Jim Crow period; Black migration; the Scottsboro Boys trial; Emmett Till murder; the rise of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement; the Counter Culture Movement; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Kennedys; Medgar Evers and Malcolm X; the Moon Landing; the Watts Riots; the election of Barack Obama and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Within this framework, Betty stood as an example of both discrimination and opportunity. As a teenager studying drama at the predominantly White Castlemont High School in Oakland, California, Betty was denied a coveted role because of the color of her race. She did, graduate from Castlemont in 1938.
At that time two occupations were open to her: she could go into agriculture or work as a domestic, as her sister had done. Instead, Betty opted for marriage to Mel Reid, a football star at a local college in San Francisco. Betty eventually went on to amass the equivalent of a two year (AA) Community College Degree. In 1942, at the age of 20, Betty began working as a clerk at Boilermakers #36, a Jim Crow segregated Union Hall in Richmond, California. Her duties consisted of filing change of address cards for transient members who moved frequently. For Betty, the occupation of a clerk, although in a segregated union hall, was a rung up the professional ladder. She said about the experience, "My parents were quite pleased."
etty's husband was not as fortunate or as resilient as Betty. He dropped out of college during his senior year to join the U.S. Navy as part of the war effort. The only post open to Black Seaman was that of cook, a position he rejected. Consequently, Mel Reid was discharged from the military and returned to his hometown, Berkeley, California. Although he and Betty were eventually able to begin and own their own small business, a record store selling Blues, Jazz and eventually Spiritual recordings, and buy a house in Walnut Creek, California, Mel Reid never fully recovered from the humiliation he experienced during his World War II service in the Navy.
According to Betty Reid Soskin, the only occupations open to black men in 1942 were those of Coleman porter, red cap, busboy, chauffeur and the like. Betty and Mel Reid, although they owned a business, successfully facing and fighting housing discrimination in Walnut Creek, California and having four children eventually divorced in 1972 leaving Betty free to date and marry a UC Berkeley Psychology Professor named William Soskin in 1978 whom she was married to until he died in 1988. As Mrs. Soskin wrote, "My first husband, Mel Reid, and I were divorced in 1971, though remained friends until he died in 1987. We continued in our roles as parents to our 4 children, and that required a different relationship. His life was gravely effected by multiple concussions resulting from many years in football — both in high school, college, and professional. Though I didn't know at that time since t I remarried Bill (Dr. William Soskin) in the early 70s, though Mel did not remarry. Both men died, and my father, Dorson Charbonnet, within 3 months in 1987.
After several traumatic months of grieving, that period was followed — unexpectedly — by a sense of emancipation. I'd lived my entire life being defined by the men in my life, and because I was married at 20 with no experience at living life as a free woman before entering the realm of motherhood, I was identified by that. I loved them all. Each contributed to what defines me in these later years, I'm sure." that diagnosis is fairly recent. He died in 1987 after several years of life as a diabetic, having suffered the amputation of one leg about five years before his death.