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  America's Oldest Park Ranger Alive and - Well - Kicking in Richmond
January 31, 2010

Ranger's voice spans East Bay history

Lee Hildebrand, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Betty Reid Soskin is a "phenomenal woman," to borrow the title of a famous poem by Maya Angelou. In her 88 years, Betty has been a shipyard worker, proprietor of a record store, housewife and mother of four, singer and composer of art songs, community activist and, for the past three years, a ranger at Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park in Richmond.


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She's the oldest active National Park Service ranger in the country and works at the park six hours a day, five days a week, doing community outreach and giving guided tours of the now dormant Kaiser Shipyards where she worked during World War II.

Born in Detroit

She was born Betty Charbonnet in Detroit in 1921 to bilingual Creole parents from New Orleans. She has traced her European ancestry to France in the 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest relative of African heritage she's been able to identify was her great-great-grandmother, a former slave named Celestine who married her former master, Cajun plantation owner Eduouard Breaux. Their daughter, Betty's great-grandmother Leontine Breaux, was 19 when they married.
"Marriages were relatively common between Cajun slave owners and their slaves," Soskin explains. "Their marriage papers are dated 1865, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. His signature is there alongside her 'X'. Her name is given, in French, as 'Celestine of no last name.' "
Betty and her parents returned to New Orleans not long after her birth and moved to East Oakland when she was 6. "It was an interesting time to grow up," she says. "There weren't enough blacks here to have rules made against us. We faced those problems when the war came and suddenly there were enough of us to set apart. Then it got ugly."
She was attending Castlemont High School when she met Mel Reid, a handsome teenage athlete from a pioneering black California family that had come to the West shortly after the Civil War to work at a gold mine owned by a former black cavalry captain. Betty and Mel wed in 1942 and opened Reid's Records three years later.
By the early '50s, the store had become so successful that Betty and Mel decided to have a home built in Walnut Creek. Future Oakland mayor Lionel Wilson's wife, who was white, signed the deed for the Reids because, being black, they would have been unable to buy the lot using their own names.
When some neighbors realized who actually was building on the lot, there were threats, Betty says, "to burn our lumber as fast as we staked it." Rumors circulated, she adds, that flamboyant Philadelphia preacher Father Divine "had bought the property to put in a heaven." By the time the house was finished, however, neighbors had warmed to the Reids.

'60s songwriter

During the '60s, Betty wrote art songs, many dealing with civil rights and peace, accompanying herself on guitar while singing. She says she auditioned for the Village Vanguard in Manhattan and was offered a contract by Capitol Records but decided against a performing career because of her children and her "shaky marriage to Mel." After they divorced in 1972, she married Bill Soskin. Both he and Mel died in 1988.
There was another reason, besides Mel's failing finances and health, that Betty returned to Reid's Records in 1978. "It was to amplify my voice toward social change," she explains. "As a middle-class woman of color married to a white professor at the University of California, I didn't have a voice at all, but as a black merchant at Sacramento and Prince in Berkeley, I could go to City Hall and make demands. I used this business toward social change, and it worked. I wound up getting the city to put in over $8 million to redevelop this community."
Betty, now a Richmond resident, became involved with Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park during its planning stages a decade ago while working as a field representative for Dion Aroner, then a California State Assembly member. Although she has become an employee of the park, she says she doesn't "identify as a Rosie," even though she had worked at the shipyard.

Jim Crow union hall

"That was a white woman's role," she explains. "I was working in a Jim Crow union hall. Black women weren't hired in any numbers until 1944."
"There's a tremendously important story there, and it needs to be told," she says of her reason for becoming a ranger. "Those migrant workers who answered the call for the great mobilization built 740 ships in four years and eight months. That's a hell of an accomplishment."
This article appeared on page Q - 16 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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Son keeps alive Reid's Records, founded in '45

Lee Hildebrand, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, January 31, 2010
When David Reid, manager of Reid's Records in Berkeley, told his mother that he was going to present a series of gospel concerts throughout Northern California in late January and early February in celebration of the 65th anniversary of the store she and his late father founded three months before the end of World War II, she initially balked.


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Black History Month: Bay Area Businesses

"David, it's not until June," Betty Reid Soskin pointed out to her son and business partner.
"My response was," David recalls while standing next to her behind the counter of the Sacramento Street store they co-own, " 'When Disneyland has a celebration, it ain't one month, it's all year. This is just the start of my celebration.' "
Reid's Records may not be the oldest still-active record store in the United States - George's Song Shop in Johnstown, Pa., launched in 1932, claims that distinction - but it's certainly the oldest in the Bay Area and probably in all of California. Mel and Betty Reid opened their store on June 1, 1945, in the basement of the duplex they'd been renting since they married three years earlier. Their landlord, Aldo Musso, was in the jukebox business and gave Mel a part-time job stocking them with 78-rpm records at local restaurants and bars.
"We found that there was a new market for what was then called 'race records,' " Betty, 88, recalls. "Mel decided that one of the things we might do to become independent was to open a record shop where we could sell that music. There was a huge market because the black population had gone up." Indeed, the Bay Area's African American population more than tripled from 1940 to 1945, from fewer than 20,000 to more than 60,000.
Betty minded the store during the early years, while Mel worked as a playground director during the day and at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond in the evening. He did find time to order records and get them played on Berkeley radio station KRE, except during the season he was away playing halfback for the Honolulu Warriors.
Much of what Reid was then selling was down-home blues that appealed to African Americans recently arrived from the South. "We didn't know anything about that stuff," Betty says. "We'd been listening to Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Jordan and Billie Holiday."
The conversation is briefly interrupted by a customer looking for a headless tambourine on a stick to play in church. David tells her he doesn't carry them but could probably order one. He does, however, stock plenty of other church supplies and religious material, including standard tambourines, choir robes, Communion ware, Bibles, songbooks, Sunday school curricula, Christian greeting cards and, of course, gospel CDs.
"It's everything for the black church experience," David, 57, says of his inventory, which now includes little secular music, other than several dozen soul and funk cassette tapes left over from the '70s.
The store's close association with gospel music began in the early '50s when Mel's uncle Paul Reid became a religious disc jockey at KRE. Mel would often suggest records for Paul to play, or Paul would give Mel advance notice of what was going to be on his playlist. Either way, Reid's Records would have the hot new gospel releases ahead of the competition. Mel and Paul then teamed up as concert promoters and throughout the '50s and '60s presented such gospel stars as James Cleveland, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his then-teenage daughter Aretha, the Caravans, Davis Sisters, the Staple Singers and the Ward Singers, usually at the Oakland Auditorium Arena.
Reid's Records thrived during that period, moving into a larger building at 3101 Sacramento St., next door to the original location. Betty dropped out of the day-to-day business in the early '50s, when she began staying home at a house she and Mel had built in Walnut Creek to raise their four children. She remained gone for more than a half century.
By the mid-'70s, Reid's Records was in serious decline and sometimes was not even open when Mel was hiding from people to whom he owed heavy gambling debts. David stepped in to try to save the business but quickly realized that many of the old customers were going to larger stores a couple of miles away, like Tower and Leopold's, that were able to buy in bulk and thus could sell records at slightly lower prices.
"They weren't buying James Brown or Marvin Gaye here anymore," says David, who returned to his old construction job after discovering he was unable to make enough money at the store to support his family.
Betty, who had divorced Mel and married UC Berkeley research psychologist William F. Soskin, returned to the store in 1978, shortly before Mel's legs were amputated because of complications from diabetes. There was a foreclosure notice on the door. Her intention was to shut it down, but she soon changed her mind.
"The whole street had become ground zero for the drug trade," she recalls. "The Santa Fe tracks were being torn out, and there was mud all the way to the door. There weren't even sidewalks.
"While I was in here boxing up the stock that I could return to the distributor, people were climbing over the sawhorses and walking through the mud and knocking on the door to buy things. It was the last of a legacy for my kids. If this building went, it would have been all those years gone."
Betty made the local news in 1986 when a reporter noticed a sign she'd put in the window announcing that she was refusing to carry rapper LL Cool J's hugely popular album "Bigger and Deffer." "It was talking about his Uzi and blowing somebody away," she explains.
"I had discovered that kids 10 and 12 years old would buy rap cassettes, put them in their Walkmen and grin," Betty adds. "I knew what was on those. I also knew that their parents didn't know. I was in the position of putting that stuff directly into the ears of children. I saw the association between what was happening on the streets in front of my store and what was happening with the children coming in to buy that stuff."
Betty again dropped out of active involvement in the store 20 years ago and turned it over to David, who now lives upstairs with his son and three daughters. Last year, he teamed up with KPFA disc jockey Emmit Powell to promote gospel concerts, much as Mel and Paul had years earlier. Their Reid's Records' 65th Anniversary Tour, headlined by Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC's and also featuring Emmit Powell and the Gospel Elites and organist Moses Tyson Jr., began this month with dates in Fresno and San Francisco and continues this week with performances in Sacramento, Stockton and, at 8 p.m. Saturday, at Star Bethel Baptist Church at 5800 San Pablo Ave. in Oakland.
"I think it's great," Betty, who seldom visits the store these days, says of her son getting into the concert business. "He may lose his shirt, but I think it's a part of the Reid legacy that David needs to live out." {sbox}
E-mail Lee Hildebrand at pinkletters@sfchronicle.com.

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