.Sign My Name to Freedom

Bay Area filmmaker races with time to bring documentary on iconic Betty Reid Soskin to fruition

Many people in the East Bay, across the United States and around the world know Richmond’s Betty Reid Soskin, who retired from her job as a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park at the ripe age of 100. Many also know her as the mother of four children, a late blooming author who wrote Sign My Name to Freedom in her 90s and the co-owner of Reid’s Records, Berkeley’s iconic Black owned record shop (which operated from 1945-2018). 

Few know of Betty Reid Soskin as a musician, vocalist and songwriter. Filmmaker and cinematographer Bryan Gibel is on a mission to change that. 

After losing her first and second husbands—Mel Reid and Bill Soskin—and her father in 1987, Soskin’s world came to a screeching halt before she put on her running shoes and began her journey of finding and redefining herself. “I had been completely defined by the men in my life. I didn’t go to college, which meant that I had never had life as a woman before I became a wife and a mother. It wasn’t until that period of intense grief (after losing the three men I was closest to) when I was around 50 years old, that I started figuring out who I was,” Soskin says.

“And then right behind that was this burst of emancipation. And I’ve been spinning in space ever since being Betty,” she continues. “When I became a park ranger at 85, no one was surprised.” 

Soskin originally became a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in large part because she saw a need to tell a more inclusive version of the story of the Rosies, a story which simultaneously celebrated the strength of women who were willing and able to step up to work in the shipyards while also acknowledging the uglier side of the era that included stories of racial segregation for Black women. By the time she opted to retire at the age of 100 in 2021, she had forever changed the ways and the depth of how people view the Rosie the Riveter shipyard era.

“History is told by whoever is at the table doing the remembering,” Soskin said when she released her autobiography, Sign My Name to Freedom, in 2018. “I have a distinct feeling that I’m being all of the women that I ever was right now, that I’m using everything that I’ve ever had and everything I’ve ever learned. Each of the women that I have been is triggered either by songs, by something I’ve read or by something one of my kids says to me. It has led me to a very rich life.”

When Bryan Gibel walked into Reid Records and connected with one of Soskin’s grown children, who now identifies as Di’ara, close to a decade ago, he had visions of keeping the story of one of Berkeley’s oldest and most treasured record stores alive with a documentary. “I had read this article about Reid Records being the first Black-owned record store West of the Mississippi and certainly in California that was started by Betty’s husband in 1945, that was run (until 2019) by (Di’ara), and I thought that would be a really important slice of Bay area history to create a film about,” Gibel recalls. 

However, the more he talked with Di’ara Reid about the store, the founding family’s history, the more curious he became about meeting Soskin, a woman who the world was getting well acquainted with as a late blooming park ranger and powerful orator. When Gibel met her, he quickly learned that she had whole other dimensions to her identity that few people knew about—she was a musician, songwriter and vocalist.

“Betty found some old reels of her music in her closet that she no longer had a means to listen to. I tracked down the equipment to digitize it and was absolutely blown away by what I heard,” Gibel says. “I felt like I was in the presence of one of the great lost songwriters.” Among her songs was “Sign My Name to Freedom,” which she wrote and sang in the ’60s and later became the title of her book.

“For me, one of the reasons Betty is so famous is because every word that she speaks is so poetic. That quality carries through in her music,” Gibel says. “The songs document Betty’s experience in the Bay Area during a formative period of her life that really guided the rest of her life.” 

The more Gibel learned about Soskin’s music, which detailed her experiences navigating life in a segregated world ridden with racism and patriarchy, the more he leaned toward shifting his film from a project that included her to a project that focused on and amplified her untold life as a musician and songwriter, called Sign My Name to Freedom. The bulk of the filming for the project was shot over a three year span from 2016-2019. Now Gibel and his team are on a mission to get the project edited and even recreate some scenes using Soskin’s voice, music, stories and documented history to allow those who engage with the film to truly get a feel for this powerful aspect of hers.

How important is it for Gibel to bring the film completely to fruition while the now 101-year-old Soskin is still alive and able to enjoy it? “Very,” he says. “Betty is like family to me. It would mean so much if she was able to enjoy the film. Her music not only tells a part of her story, but fills in important gaps of what has been left out of her narrative (and we’re excited to share that with the world).”

Gibel adds that in getting to know Soskin and spending a lot of time with her in the past six years, music is the subject matter that he has witnessed sparking the most intense joy for her.

Di’ara Reid, Betty’s daughter, who has been living alongside and caring for her mother for the past three years, couldn’t be more thrilled about Gibel’s forthcoming film focusing on her mother’s undertold story about her musical artistry. “My mother is in her eleventh decade now, and she likes to recreate herself every decade,” Reid says.

“This is a project that reaches back to when she was in her 40s and 50s, about a time she went through when she was writing and singing music. She had an audition at Village Gate in New York and walked away from the opportunity because she didn’t want to leave her four kids behind for another career. So she came back home, put her music away in a box and parented us,” Reid explains. “Thank goodness six years ago, (Gibel) came into the record store, which eventually inspired my mom to reopen that box.” 

As many who have heard Soskin speak or read her book know, she not only worked in times of segregation; she and her family experienced the aftermath of it when they attempted to put down roots in Walnut Creek but were subjected to extreme racism in the ’60s. Reid says the stress of navigating the racial tensions, of not feeling like she belonged, of being a woman who was told (by society) that her only options for life were to be a wife and mother and of raising four children in that environment led Soskin to mental breakdown. 

“Music became her tool for picking herself up and for healing. She tried painting and then writing and then making music. She was evolving,” Reid says. “Music helped her come out of the fog out of her trauma. So it was instrumental for her as a person to get herself to be whole again and was incredible for what she had gone through and helped her to come out the other side and so spectacularly.”

While Reid is grateful to her mother for all she did for her four children and feels honored to reciprocate some of the caretaking in her mother’s last stage of life, she would like more than anything for the legacy and stories behind Soskin’s music to be introduced to the world through the film project while she is still here to enjoy it. “We’re trying to raise money to finish the film and get it out to the public. The music my mom wrote in the 1960s and ’70s that chronicles a whole period of life is just as relevant today. She would spend 20 minutes writing a song and they came out complete,” Reid beams. 

“She’s just as good as any of the great singers you would have heard. Each of her songs came out fantastic, and if you listen to her music, it’s just as relevant today as it was back then,” she observes.

Reid says that although many people around the world have come to know Soskin’s public persona as the park ranger who worked until age 100, she knows a whole different version of her mother. “I think her music really gives you some insight into the Betty Reid Soskin I know (as her daughter) that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily know about yet,” Reid says. “My mother is a woman with a high school education who had very few options outside of becoming a wife and a mother when she was growing up. She did those things in the first half of her life, and she’s done so much more in the second half.” 

Reid recalls being beside Soskin when she talked about finding and reinventing herself after her first and second husband passed away and finding her sea legs. “My mother said that if she had it to do over again, she wasn’t so sure that she would’ve gotten married. She said she would have still been a mother, but might not have done the other part,” Reid says. “I was floored by that.” 

She is in it for the long haul with her mother and intends to live every remaining day that she and her mother share, to the fullest. In the future, when people look back on her mother’s legacy, Reid believes Soskin would want others to know that it’s never too late. “I was a late bloomer,” Soskin said in an interview when she was 97. “So I’m gonna keep going for as long as I can because there’s so much to get done.” 

The other piece of wisdom that Soskin has tried to impart while giving tours at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, on college and school campuses and venues around the world is simple yet profound: “It’s a both-and world. Your truth may conflict with mine, and still they are both valid.” 

In an ironic way, Gibel’s pending documentary, Sign My Name to Freedom, weaves together aspects of Soskin’s personal history in a way that shows that even if one is a mom and/or a wife or a widow who worked as a park ranger until 100 and could easily be deemed one of the most profound and powerful orators around, one can also be a musician. At the same time as Gibel wants to amplify Soskin’s message that it’s never too late and honor the timelessness of her music that will tell a story for generations to come, he is racing with time to finish his film. 

“Our goal is to raise an additional $80,000 to bring another full time editor on board to edit all the footage that we have. Then we hope to combine footage of Betty in her later years of life with carefully crafted recreations of the times of her life when she was on stage creating music and moving audiences,” Gibel says. “There’s a scene Betty described to me where she played Sign My Name to Freedom on stage and whispered ‘thank you’ before quietly exiting the stage, thinking she failed, when in fact the audience was awestruck and then went wild.” 

In the meantime, with Gibel’s help, Soskin has been collaborating with musicians, dancers and artists of different generations, creating intergenerational art and stories that will undoubtedly make its way into the film. Gibel recalls her performing a civil rights song that she’d written in the ’60s at the Paramount Theater in Oakland in front of a crowd of more than a thousand people. “I remember her telling me she was terrified and that she could never compete with her younger self, but she did it anyway. She got people of all races, cultures and genders to stand up, hold hands and sing together,” Gibel says. “That’s who Betty is. That’s the kind of person she is.” 

Those who are interested in learning more or helping Gibel’s documentary, Sign My Name to Freedom, illuminating the musical legacy of Betty Reid Soskin, can do so by visiting the International Documentary Association’s page, where the fundraising trailer for the forthcoming film can be accessed. 

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