We arrived at the visitor center for the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park expecting to see the usual, high quality displays and a peek into the past. And that's what we got.
The displays and artifacts are good. The videos are excellent. It's amazing to think that at the height of the War a Liberty ship was completed every two weeks. Even more amazing that the Kaiser shipyards once completed a ship in less than five days! Throughout, the story that was told was one of the country coming together and overcoming the barriers that divide. It's a wonderful story, but it's not the only story.
As we were ending our visit the ranger asked if we were planning to stay for, "Betty's talk." The sound of Amy's head snapping around was audible. "Betty Reid Soskin is speaking TODAY? WE ARE STAYING!"
A little explanation may be in order. Betty Reid Soskin is a National Park Service ranger, but not just any ranger. At 96 she's the oldest ranger in the country and has a unique perspective based on her own experiences at the Richmond shipyards during the war. Amy's a little bit of a fan. Actually, as she described it, she's got "a massive girl crush" on Betty.
So we grabbed lunch at the restaurant across the street while waiting for the presentation to begin. (It's the Assemble Restaurant. Pro-tip: Every purchase comes with a pass to the Columbia Sportswear company store just down the street. If you go to the store put someone in line right away and maybe you'll near the cash registers when you're done shopping.)
We watched a short video that reinforced the displays upstairs. Then Betty came out and sat on a simple stool. She began by telling us that the world in the movie wasn't the same world she saw from a segregated union hall. She never saw a ship being built. She never saw white workers. Her world was one of Jim Crow laws and discrimination. Betty told us that her position as a clerk was beyond what her parents could have dreamed of. The options for women in her mother's generation were being a housewife or caring for someone else's family.
The most impactful moment was when Betty told us of her experience planning the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front park. She found she was the only African-American in the room and the only one with first-hand experience. "What gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering." How simple and how true. It's hard to believe we didn't already get that.
Thanks to Betty we'll remember that the history we learn is only one aspect of the past. There are many more stories to hear before we truly understand what happened. The only way we can hear those stories is to ensure that everyone is represented so they can do the remembering.
(You can see a clip from a forthcoming documentary here: https://vimeo.com/191080724.)