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Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life

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In Betty Reid Soskin’s 96 years of living, she has been a witness to a grand sweep of American history. When she was born in 1921, the lynching of African-Americans was a national disgrace, minstrel shows were the most popular American form of entertainment, women were looked at suspiciously by many for exercising their right to vote, and most African-Americans in the Deep In Betty Reid Soskin’s 96 years of living, she has been a witness to a grand sweep of American history. When she was born in 1921, the lynching of African-Americans was a national disgrace, minstrel shows were the most popular American form of entertainment, women were looked at suspiciously by many for exercising their right to vote, and most African-Americans in the Deep South could not vote at all. From her great-grandmother, who had been enslaved until she was in her mid-20s, Betty heard stories of slavery and the difficult times for Black Folk that immediately followed. In her lifetime, Betty has seen the nation begin to break down its race and gender biases, watched it nearly split apart in the upheavals of the civil rights and Black Power eras, and, finally, lived long enough to witness both the election of an African-American president and the re-emergence of a militant, racist far right. But far more than being merely a witness, Betty Reid Soskin has been an active participant with so many other Americans in shaping the country as we know it now. The child of Louisiana Creole parents who refused to bow down to Southern discrimination, she was raised in the Black Bay Area community before the great westward migration of World War II. After working in the civilian homefront effort in the war years, she and her husband, Mel Reid, helped break down racial boundaries by moving into a white community east of the Oakland hills. There she raised four children—one openly gay, one developmentally disabled—while working to end the prejudices against the family that existed among many of her neighbors. With Mel, she opened up one of the first Bay Area record stores in Berkeley both owned by African-Americans and dedicated to the distribution of African-American music. Her community organizing activities eventually led her to work as a state legislative aid, helping to plan the innovative Rosie the Riveter National Park in Richmond, California, then to a “second” career at the Rosie Park as the oldest park ranger in the history of the National Park Service. In between, she used her talents as a singer and songwriter to interpret and chronicle the great social upheavals that marked the 1960s. In 2003, Betty displayed a new talent, writing, when she created the popular blog CBreaux Speaks. Now followed by thousands, her blog is a collection of Betty’s sometimes fierce, sometimes gently persuasive, but always brightly honest story that weaves both the wisdom of the ages and the fresh enthusiasm of an always youthful mind into her long journey through an American and African-American life, as well as America’s long struggle to both understand and cleanse its soul. Blending together selections from many of Betty’s hundreds of blog entries with interviews, letters, and speeches collected throughout her long life, Sign My Name to Freedom invites readers into an American life through the words and thoughts of a national treasure who has never stopped looking at herself, the nation, or the world with fresh eyes.


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In Betty Reid Soskin’s 96 years of living, she has been a witness to a grand sweep of American history. When she was born in 1921, the lynching of African-Americans was a national disgrace, minstrel shows were the most popular American form of entertainment, women were looked at suspiciously by many for exercising their right to vote, and most African-Americans in the Deep In Betty Reid Soskin’s 96 years of living, she has been a witness to a grand sweep of American history. When she was born in 1921, the lynching of African-Americans was a national disgrace, minstrel shows were the most popular American form of entertainment, women were looked at suspiciously by many for exercising their right to vote, and most African-Americans in the Deep South could not vote at all. From her great-grandmother, who had been enslaved until she was in her mid-20s, Betty heard stories of slavery and the difficult times for Black Folk that immediately followed. In her lifetime, Betty has seen the nation begin to break down its race and gender biases, watched it nearly split apart in the upheavals of the civil rights and Black Power eras, and, finally, lived long enough to witness both the election of an African-American president and the re-emergence of a militant, racist far right. But far more than being merely a witness, Betty Reid Soskin has been an active participant with so many other Americans in shaping the country as we know it now. The child of Louisiana Creole parents who refused to bow down to Southern discrimination, she was raised in the Black Bay Area community before the great westward migration of World War II. After working in the civilian homefront effort in the war years, she and her husband, Mel Reid, helped break down racial boundaries by moving into a white community east of the Oakland hills. There she raised four children—one openly gay, one developmentally disabled—while working to end the prejudices against the family that existed among many of her neighbors. With Mel, she opened up one of the first Bay Area record stores in Berkeley both owned by African-Americans and dedicated to the distribution of African-American music. Her community organizing activities eventually led her to work as a state legislative aid, helping to plan the innovative Rosie the Riveter National Park in Richmond, California, then to a “second” career at the Rosie Park as the oldest park ranger in the history of the National Park Service. In between, she used her talents as a singer and songwriter to interpret and chronicle the great social upheavals that marked the 1960s. In 2003, Betty displayed a new talent, writing, when she created the popular blog CBreaux Speaks. Now followed by thousands, her blog is a collection of Betty’s sometimes fierce, sometimes gently persuasive, but always brightly honest story that weaves both the wisdom of the ages and the fresh enthusiasm of an always youthful mind into her long journey through an American and African-American life, as well as America’s long struggle to both understand and cleanse its soul. Blending together selections from many of Betty’s hundreds of blog entries with interviews, letters, and speeches collected throughout her long life, Sign My Name to Freedom invites readers into an American life through the words and thoughts of a national treasure who has never stopped looking at herself, the nation, or the world with fresh eyes.

30 review for Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Diana Lustig

    Very inspirational story of this woman's life over the past 90+ years. It was very interesting to hear about the history of her own family, of Oakland and the Bay Area during WWI and more. The one downside is her writing is transcribed from interviews, it does take some time to get used to.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dixie Howard

    Powerful memoir!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Constance Chevalier

    Betty Reid-Soskin is a truly remarkable woman! So many events throughout her life! What an extraordinary woman! She lives in Richmond, Ca.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Nicole

    Betty Reid Soskin is probably best known for being America's oldest park ranger, and is generally described as a real-life former Rosie the Riveter. But her park ranger work is probably the least interesting thing about Ms. Reid Soskin, and as for the Rosie the Riveter title? Well, Ms. Reid Soskin doesn't claim it for herself, and the reasons why make for very enlightening reading. Betty Reid Soskin describes herself as Creole, having been born into a racially diverse New Orleans family in 1921. Betty Reid Soskin is probably best known for being America's oldest park ranger, and is generally described as a real-life former Rosie the Riveter. But her park ranger work is probably the least interesting thing about Ms. Reid Soskin, and as for the Rosie the Riveter title? Well, Ms. Reid Soskin doesn't claim it for herself, and the reasons why make for very enlightening reading. Betty Reid Soskin describes herself as Creole, having been born into a racially diverse New Orleans family in 1921. She lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area. The changes she witnessed are fascinating and attest to how fast things changed in the 20th century. In the early 1950s, for example, she had to watch a minstrel show at her son's Walnut Creek elementary school. By the 1970s, she was marching with Black Panthers. Over the decades she's been an activist, a singer-songwriter, a wartime file clerk, a mother of four, a blogger and now, naturally, a park ranger. It's quite a life and Betty Reid Soskin's story is quite a read. It's not quite a conventional autobiography, having been Frankensteined together from audio interviews and blog entries. Not everything gets covered. But how would you fit a whole 96-year (and counting) life into one book? The gaps and odd segues aren't a major problem. The book offers a very interesting perspective on American history. As Ms. Reid Soskin explains, she realized at some point that when it came to recording wartime stories, "What was being remembered was dependent upon who was doing the remembering." This book goes a long way toward making sure that the 20th century, working-class African-American experience gets remembered.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mimi

    I'm biased toward this book, partly as I've taken my grandchildren to hear Betty talk at the Rosie the Riveter museum and also because her daughter Dorrie is one of my students where I'm a volunteer ceramic teacher at NIAD on Richmond, but besides that, this is a very honest, humble and intelligent memoir from an extraordinary woman.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Marty

    Betty Soskin is best known for being a US Park Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She is the oldest working ranger (She will turn 99 in June, 2020) in the US Park system. --- but before her current job, she was a homemaker, mother, civil rights pioneer, business owner, singer & song writer and was married twice. Betty has had a unique view of the history of the 20th century. Her grandmother was born a slave and she was selected to in Betty Soskin is best known for being a US Park Ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. She is the oldest working ranger (She will turn 99 in June, 2020) in the US Park system. --- but before her current job, she was a homemaker, mother, civil rights pioneer, business owner, singer & song writer and was married twice. Betty has had a unique view of the history of the 20th century. Her grandmother was born a slave and she was selected to introduce President and Mrs. Obama at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2015. Oh, she never was a “Rosie the Riveter” but worked as a clerk in a union office during WWII. While much of this book is in Soskin’s own words, some of it was put together from the Blogs Betty wrote. ---Betty came from Creole / Black Cajun roots in New Orleans where her family had lived until the flood of 2017 forced the family to move to California. Although she did participate in civil rights activities, she was never a leader. It wasn’t until she was in her 80s that she realized that if she didn’t tell the story of what happened to black and poor people, no one would. Their “shacks and shantys” were not good enough for historical preservation. Their stories were being lost because no one spoke for them. …. Betty decided she had to be the one. And she has. --------Although the book is rambling at times, it is well-worth reading. Go-Betty Go!!!

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    I was fortunate enough to attend a book signing run by Betty’s extended family at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in Oakland and hear about this amazing woman. Betty is now 96 years old and, in her own words, has lived several lives. She talks about her early life in New Orleans and her love for her Maman who was born a slave. Her next life was in California, living as the only black family in the suburbs while raising 4 children and running a music store in south. Berkeley. She discovered her voice whi I was fortunate enough to attend a book signing run by Betty’s extended family at Geoffrey’s Inner Circle in Oakland and hear about this amazing woman. Betty is now 96 years old and, in her own words, has lived several lives. She talks about her early life in New Orleans and her love for her Maman who was born a slave. Her next life was in California, living as the only black family in the suburbs while raising 4 children and running a music store in south. Berkeley. She discovered her voice while fighting prejudice in Walnut. Creek. Then she segued to the white world as the wife of a Cal professor while trying to save the black music store. As she worked to improve her south Berkeley neighborhood, she got involved with politics and was employed as a state legislative aide. This led to her work on rehabilitating the Richmond waterfront and the creation of the Rosie the Riveter museum. Betty is very adamant that the Rosies were all white women. During the war, she worked as a file clerk in a segregated unit making sure all black employees were labeled temporary. Now that she is in her 90’s, she is working as the most famous ranger in the country, telling the WWII story from the minority’s side. She is a real institution and her book is a gem.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl Armstrong

    I had trouble putting this marvelous memoir down. A friend recommended it to me because Betty Reid Soskin and her family were the first Blacks to build a home in Walnut Creek, CA, the town where I grew up. In fact, her home was very near my first neighborhood. I remember riding my bike past their home, noting their swimming pool and remembering that they were an unusual family. They did not have it easy in W.C., to say the least.Betty had a marvelous spirit and a fascinating life. Born in Louisi I had trouble putting this marvelous memoir down. A friend recommended it to me because Betty Reid Soskin and her family were the first Blacks to build a home in Walnut Creek, CA, the town where I grew up. In fact, her home was very near my first neighborhood. I remember riding my bike past their home, noting their swimming pool and remembering that they were an unusual family. They did not have it easy in W.C., to say the least.Betty had a marvelous spirit and a fascinating life. Born in Louisiana to Creole parents, she was raised in Oakland and owned record stores in Berkeley and other parts of the Bay Area. She has a fantastic memory and is an astute historian and observer of humanity, inhumanity, and politics at the neighborhood level. Betty met challenges with strength and honesty and was much admired in her later years as the oldest park ranger in the history of the National Park Service, having helped to plan the rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NationalHistorical Park in Richmond, CA.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Helena Mbele-Mbong

    A fascinating autobiography of an extraordinary woman, simply told as she lived it. The story speaks for itself, without embellishing. A life doing what she had to do, coming to full realization of who she was and what she stood for later, as she faced the events and times she was in. It personalizes and makes real the general history we know of race relations, the place of women, social dynamics, … The strength of this book lies in the straight-forward honesty with which she tells her story. It A fascinating autobiography of an extraordinary woman, simply told as she lived it. The story speaks for itself, without embellishing. A life doing what she had to do, coming to full realization of who she was and what she stood for later, as she faced the events and times she was in. It personalizes and makes real the general history we know of race relations, the place of women, social dynamics, … The strength of this book lies in the straight-forward honesty with which she tells her story. It brings life into the history - a history which is too little known or understood by those who were not directly part of it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Tricia Lawrence

    No doubt an amazing person I had the fortune to see on stage recently in an interview - at 97 years old! So I was very interested to read her book, an accumulation of her blogs and stories over the many years of her life. It gave this Brit an insightful view of American history spanning so many years which only someone with Betty's background, intelligence, determination and longevity could produce. Not an easy read but persevere! It's worth it!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    What a remarkable woman and life story. Betty was a housewife turned activist and so much more. Her impact on the Bay Area and beyond is still felt and, at almost 100, she doesn’t appear to be slowing down. I learned so much about the east bay too and am inspired to visit the Rosie the Riveter park and more. Thank you Betty for all your service.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Deb Perry

    This is the memoir of a woman and her family, ancestors, culture. It's also (in the last quarter of the book), an eminently readable first-hand account of the history of the city of Richmond, California and how it changed, during WW2. Ms. Reid Soskin, a National Park Ranger in Richmond, makes a compelling argument for the vital necessity of Black history, because history is created by what is remembered by who is in the room.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Penny

    A VERY powerful and engaging memoir written by the oldest US National Park ranger, Betty Soskin who is 97 -- and still giving talks three days a week at the Rosie the Riveter National Park. The book is astute, honest, detailed in the accounting of the Work War two era for Black women in the US. Highly recommend!!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Stacy

    Such a fascinating read. BRS has lived through and witnessed so much history, and worked hard at a wide variety of endeavors, including activist, singer/songwriter, wife/mother, small business owner, blogger, and park ranger. She is a true role model for how to live a long life instead of, as she puts it, an "extended death."

  15. 4 out of 5

    Allison A

    Terrific first-person account of navigating racism from the 1940s through today, by a 94-year-old woman who now serves as a park ranger for the Rosie the Riveter National Park. She wasn't groomed to take a stand and she didn't set out to be a spitfire: racists provoked her to grow into an activist.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Priya

    What a life. Betty Reid-Soskin is an amazing woman who has lived through some of the most difficult times in our nation's history. Hearing her life story and how she was impacted by events outside her control, and consequently how she worked to be an agent of change herself is inspiring. I am so sorry I missed seeing her at Rosie the Riveter/Homefront National Park this past fall, but I am grateful to have been given this book as a gift.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kristin

    What a remarkable woman! Listen to her on The Moth: https://themoth.org/storytellers/bett... What a remarkable woman! Listen to her on The Moth: https://themoth.org/storytellers/bett...

  18. 5 out of 5

    Carolina Gardner

    This is a very powerful book! Very inspiring ❤️

  19. 4 out of 5

    Lauren Hough

    So thankful to have been able to interview and meet BRS and even better now to read about her beautiful, extensive life.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Amazing life story -- not my favorite writing style.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Martha Evans

    Betty Soskin is a remarkable woman, just not a remarkable writer. I enjoyed reading about her life, but I feel the book went on too long and was a little too self-congratulatory.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jacqueline Materne

    Compelling history of the place where I grew up, seen from the unique viewpoint of one of its long time residents.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Anne-Marie Chandler

    I expected a bit more. There were common words misspelled or not edited correctly. Ms Siskin is inspirational for women but there was so much she wanted to relate it was done out of any order.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Kim

    Inspiring subject, but I did not think this book was edited well at all.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Claudia Schumann

    Excellent story of her life. Some errors and bad editing but on the whole the book was enjoyableto read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Bill

    Very readable and informative autobiography of a remarkable life. A great reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    What a beautiful person. I am embarrassed to not have known about her before my friend gave me this memoir.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Megan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sandy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Celeste

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