Oakland, CA—May 17, 2017
Amid a throng of news media and documentary film crews, Mills College awarded an honorary Doctor of Arts and Letters degree to National Parks Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, a tireless, outspoken voice dedicated to raising awareness about the discrimination and segregation of African Americans who worked in Richmond, California shipyards during World War II.
The Mills College Board of Trustees conferred the degree upon Soskin during the College’s 129th Commencement on Saturday May 13.
Soskin, who moved to East Oakland with her family in 1927, said a degree from Mills College at the time seemed like a magical, yet impossible goal for someone of her class and race.
“As a little girl, I rode past Mills on the MacArthur Avenue bus line throughout my childhood and adolescence, past the great wall-like bushes of Mills College and wondered what was behind them, a secret garden?” Soskin said on the Mills commencement stage. “I didn’t know if the people within them were being protected from the people without, and that was the way I thought at the time. To have lived into an age to be affirmed in this way by Mills College, you have no idea what that means. Thank you very, very much.”
At 95, Soskin is a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond and the oldest park ranger in the National Parks system. The granddaughter of a freed slave, Soskin worked as a file clerk in a segregated, all-black workplace in Richmond during World War II. In the 1960s she was a political activist and songwriter working for social justice. Later she founded a blues and jazz record store in Berkeley with her husband that is still in business.
“What a remarkable life she has led,” Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman told a cheering crowd before awarding the degree to Soskin. “This is an accomplished woman whose advocacy and tireless voice over a lifetime has assured that the African American wartime experiences and African American contributions before and after WWII are celebrated, remembered, and made integral to US history.”
You can view the entire Mills College 129th Commencement celebration here.