Throughout her life, Bettye Gillespie has been committed to fighting inequality and segregation “wherever it exists”, according to her family – even as a teenager.
When Gillespie was a student at Central Junior High School in Ogden, she tried shopping for candy at a little mom and pop shop near 25th Street and Monroe Boulevard. But the store owner “had some sort of incident” with two boys at his school and said he wouldn’t serve her, Gillespie recalls in interviews in 2012 and 2014 for an oral history project from Weber State University.
The owner told him it was “because those two black kids had moved on and made a fuss,” Gillespie said, “and I said,” Well, what is this has to do with me? “”
Gillespie went to his manager, who “grabbed me by the arm” and “took me to the store,” where he confronted the owner. When his principal suggested that his students should stop shopping at the store, the owner relented.
“I’m telling you, he was surprised,” Gillespie said, thinking back to his 5-foot height standing next to his “towering” main.
Gillespie, who has become “one of Utah’s most dynamic, distinguished and celebrated civil rights leaders,” died on July 2, according to her obituary. She was 92 years old.
“She always had hope. Hope for people and hope for people, ”said Adrienne Andrews, Gillespie’s granddaughter.
“She could always imagine what could be, even when not everyone could,” she added.
His grandmother was also “never afraid to make a trail where there hadn’t been,” Andrews said. And “she reminded people that she didn’t care to be the first, as long as people understood that she wouldn’t be the last.”
Fight for civil rights
Born in Texas in 1928, Gillespie moved to Utah with her family when she was a child. After graduating from Ogden High School at the age of 15, Gillespie studied political science at Howard University in Washington, DC. She later obtained degrees in political science and human resources management at the University of Utah.
“To get her masters degree, Mrs. Gillespie said with a laugh,” according to a 1976 Standard-Examiner article, “she had to reorganize her life:” You try to take care of the family, to cook a little, to clean a little – and study a lot. ‘”
Gillespie worked as the Director of Equal Employment Opportunities at Hill Air Force Base, where for most of her 40 years or so, “she was among the top ranked black civilian employees,” according to her. obituary.
Gillespie and her husband, James Gillespie, who died in 2009, “have fought to break racial, economic and gender stereotypes for almost 50 years,” he said.
The two worked with the Ogden branch of the NAACP. In a 1995 Salt Lake Tribune article about James Gillespie’s retirement as branch president, the couple reflected on everything they had done, including “pressuring the city to desegregate the public pool “.
In the early 1980s, “malls were sprouting up in Ogden, and Gillespie was worried when he saw a few black faces behind the cash registers,” reported The Tribune.
“He asked the personnel manager of one of the stores why, especially since so many people had applied,” according to the article. “She said to him, ‘We don’t have black people and we are not hiring.'”
“So began an NAACP-backed boycott that Bettye Gillespie calls a ‘selective buying campaign’ against stores that refused to hire African Americans,” The Tribune reported. “The store managers blinked their eyes first and African Americans were hired,” Gillespie said, even in the store with the director of real estate – who was fired. “
In the early 1970s, the couple bought a house in Riverdale near Washington Terrace.
“Before moving in, someone threw a bucket of tar through a large window,” Bettye Gillespie recalls in her 2014 interview with Weber State University. “It made a lot of noise. The FBI, local law enforcement, the media got involved. “
Neighbors cleaned up the broken window glass and tar, she said, and members of local churches “came out and surrounded the block.” Another person “sat on our porch with a string,” Gillespie said. The local stake president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “commissioned his two older sons to ‘watch’ over the couple’s young children.
“Our house was in a corner with a really big yard and lots of play equipment,” Gillespie said. “We have become everyone’s best friend.”
“A power station”
Representative Sandra Hollins met Gillespie in 2000 through the Great Salt Lake Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American national historic sorority.
“She was just a powerhouse,” Hollins said. “She was stylish and she was beautiful, but she was smart.”
When Hollins announced her candidacy for the Statehouse, Gillespie called and asked Hollins to come see her in Ogden. Over dinner Gillespie “shared her wisdom,” Hollins said, and “told me how proud she was to be with me in running for office.”
“She left a very powerful legacy,” Hollins said, “… and I just hope I can live up to that legacy and the standards that she has set in this community.”
Forrest Crawford first met Gillespie in 1972, and over the years they have worked together through the NAACP and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Utah Human Rights Commission.
“Bettye’s legacy is not only long, but it is deep,” he said.
One of the things that stands out for Crawford about Gillespie is that when she reached out to community organizations, she didn’t tell them what they should think or do, he said. Instead, she helped them see how fairness helps people.
“On my 18th birthday she called me and told me to come over to her house and that she needed to see me,” Andrews said. When Andrews arrived, she learned that Gillespie wanted her to register to vote.
“She reminded me that I have an obligation not only to go to the polls and vote, but to educate myself as a voter,” and to involve people on issues, Andrews said.
Gillespie “spearheaded voter registration campaigns,” according to his obituary, “and often took his own young children door to door to register voters.”
“She’s a woman who wanted to make sure that everyone had a voice, that everyone had an opportunity,” Andrews said.
Gillespie has also been involved in the League of Women Voters and Habitat for Humanity, among other organizations and accolades, and was the first African American appointed to the University of Utah Board of Trustees.
“Bettye left Utah,” her obituary stated, “a much fairer, more inclusive and beautiful place than she found it.”
Becky Jacobs is a Report for America member of the body and writes on the status of women in Utah for the Salt Lake Tribune. Your matching donation to our RFA grant helps her continue to write stories like this; please consider making a tax deductible donation of any amount today by clicking here.