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At 102 Years Old, Betty Reid Soskin Revisits Her Music From the Civil Rights Era

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Betty Reid Soskin listening to her own music as film director Bryan Gibel watches.
Betty Reid Soskin listening to her own music as film director Bryan Gibel watches. (Via Bryan Gibel )

Betty Reid Soskin’s life story is a reminder that all of us are given just one life; and that, within it, there can be many lives lived. There’s now a film in production that’s set to drive that point home.

Sign My Name To Freedom: The Lost Music of Betty Reid Soskin, directed by Bryan Gibel and co-directed by A.K. Sandhu, is a close look at how the Bay Area’s form of racism and redlining impacted Reid Soskin and her family, and how she used music to fight back.

Reid Soskin has a fascinating story. She’s famously known as the woman who became the oldest United States Park Ranger in history, at age 85. This accomplishment was celebrated by President Obama on multiple occasions, including a message he sent to her in 2022 after she announced her retirement at age 100.

Reid Soskin, who has a middle school named in her honor, was also once the owner of Reid’s Records in Berkeley. A community hub and resource in the historically Black community of South Berkeley, the store operated for nearly 75 years. At the time of its closing, it was the oldest record store in California.

Betty Reid Soskin posing for a photo in the 1940s at Lake Merritt in Oakland.
Betty Reid Soskin, pictured in the 1940s. (Via Betty Reid Soskin)

Gibel and Sandhu’s film goes even further back, picking up after Reid Soskin graduated from East Oakland’s Castlemont High School and started a family with her first husband, Mel Reid. After having children, Reid Soskin and her family moved to the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel, taking up residence in Walnut Creek, where they were one of the first African American families in town.

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They were soon subject to racist harassment in their immediate community as well as at work, where Reid Soskin labored in the Boilermaker union during WWII.

These first-person experiences, coupled with reports of racist attacks across the country and war around the world, led to Reid Soskin writing songs to fight the powers that be.

Sign My Name to Freedom is the title of the film (as well as her memoir and a stage play about her life which premieres March 28); it’s also the name of her best-known song.

In the documentary film, Reid Soskin (who’s now 102) listens to reel-to-reel tapes excavated from an old box that had been in her closet for nearly a half-century.

Cameras roll as she time-travels by revisiting her old lyrics, prompting recollections about world events at the time. The film also features interviews with Reid Soskin and her family, plus beautiful archival photos and home videos.

A candid shot of Betty Reid Soskin in the 1960's holding a guitar while sitting in a music circle in the Asilomar area of Monterey Bay.
Betty Reid Soskin, in the 1960s, in a music circle in the Asilomar area of Monterey Bay. (Via Betty Reid Soskin)

In true Reid Soskin fashion, the film isn’t just about yesteryear, but what she’s doing now. It follows her to a 2018 performance at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, where she, along with the Oakland Symphony and a 200-person choir, sang “Your Hand In Mine,” her tribute to the civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer.

The film is still in production, and the team is throwing events to raise funds for it. Upcoming events include an online screening on Tuesday, Feb. 29, in collaboration with the Zaccho Dance Company; an in-person event on Saturday, March 16, at the South Berkeley Library; and a pop-up event held with the Rosie The Riveter Trust on Friday, March 22 at the old Ford Assembly Plant in Richmond.


More information about ‘Sign My Name To Freedom: The Lost Music of Betty Reid Soskin’ and upcoming events can be found here.

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