At an age when most people have been retired for decades, Betty Reid Soskin is helping our country redefine our understanding of racial segregation and civil rights. As a 20-year-old, she signed up to work in the WWII home front effort but Richmond, California’s segregated shipyards restricted her to work as a secretary in a Jim Crow union hall. Seventy-five years later, she’s now the country’s oldest park ranger, and she’s shaped Richmond’s Rosie the Riveter Park into a public examination of racism and segregation during the War, earning a presidential medal of honor from Barack Obama.
But beyond her public self, there’s a hidden side to Betty most people don’t know about. Long before she was a ranger, Betty was a singer/songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s with a voice like Billie Holiday and the relevance of Nina Simone, but she turned her back on a potential career as a musical artist and never recorded commercially. Her songs tell the story of her experiences confronting segregation in the Bay Area’s housing market after WWII and the harm that came to her family for being the first black family to move into an all-white suburb. For nearly 40 years, her music remained untouched on dusty reel-to-reel tapes.
Now, Betty decides to team up with acclaimed jazz composer Marcus Shelby and his orchestra of young musicians in San Francisco to write and perform new arrangements of her songs, sparking an autobiographical journey through the black experience by three generations of musicians in California.