Bettye Gillespie, who fought for equity and civil rights in Utah, leaves ‘long,’ ‘deep’ legacy

Gillespie, who died this month at 92, fought for equity and made sure ‘everyone had a voice,’ according to her granddaughter.

(Gillespie family) Bettye Gillespie, a civil rights leader in Utah, died July 2, 2021, in Ogden at age 92.

All her life, Bettye Gillespie was committed to challenging inequality and segregation “wherever it existed,” according to her family — even as a teenager.

When Gillespie was a student at Ogden’s Central Junior High School, she tried to buy candy at a small mom and pop shop near 25th Street and Monroe Boulevard. But the store owner “had some kind of incident” with two boys from her school and said he wouldn’t serve her, Gillespie recalled in interviews in 2012 and 2014 for a Weber State University oral history project.

The owner told her it was “because these two black kids had been over and raised a fuss,” Gillespie said, “and I said, ‘Well, what does that have to do with me?’”

Gillespie went to her principal, who “grabbed me by the arm” and “took me over to the store,” where he confronted the owner. When her principal suggested that his students wouldn’t shop at the store anymore, the owner caved.

“I tell you, he was surprised,” Gillespie said, thinking back to her 5-foot-tall self standing next to her “imposing” principal.

Gillespie, who went on to become “one of the most dynamic, distinguished and celebrated civil rights leaders in Utah,” died July 2, according to her obituary. She was 92.

“She always had hope. Hope for people and hope in people,” said Adrienne Andrews, Gillespie’s granddaughter.

“She could always imagine what could be, even when everyone else might not be able to,” she added.

Her grandmother was also “never afraid to blaze a trail where none had existed,” Andrews said. And “she would remind people that she didn’t mind being the first, as long as people understood that she wouldn’t be the last.”

Fighting 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 when she was 15 years old, Gillespie studied political science at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Later, she earned degrees in political science and human resource management at the University of Utah.

“To gain her master’s, Mrs. Gillespie laughingly said,” according to a 1976 Standard-Examiner article, “she had to rearrange her life: ‘You try to take care of the family, cook a little, clean a little — and study a lot.’”

Gillespie worked as the director of Equal Employment Opportunity at Hill Air Force Base, where for many of her roughly 40 years there, “she was among the highest ranked Black civilian employees,” according to her obituary.

Gillespie and her husband, James Gillespie, who died in 2009, “fought to shatter racial, economic and gender stereotypes for close to 50 years,” it said.

The two worked with the Ogden branch of the NAACP. In a 1995 Salt Lake Tribune article about James Gillespie’s retirement as the branch’s president, the couple reflected on all they had done, including “pressuring the city to desegregate the municipal swimming pool.”

In the early 1980s, “shopping malls were sprouting up in Ogden, and Gillespie was worried when he saw few black faces behind the cash registers,” The Tribune reported.

“He asked the personnel manager of one of the stores why, especially considering that so many had applied,” according to the article. “She told him, ‘We don’t have any blacks and we’re not hiring.’”

“Thus began an NAACP-backed boycott that Bettye Gillespie refers to as a ‘selective buying campaign,’ against stores that refused to hire African Americans,” The Tribune reported. “Store managers blinked first, and African Americans were hired, Gillespie said, even at the shop with the immovable personnel manager — who was fired.”

Around the early 1970s, the couple bought a home in Riverdale near Washington Terrace.

“Before we moved in, someone threw a bucket of tar through a large window,” Bettye Gillespie recalled in her 2014 interview with Weber State University. “It caused quite a stir. The FBI, local law enforcement officers, the news media became involved.”

Neighbors cleaned up the glass from the broken window and the tar, she said, and members from local churches “came out and encircled the block.” Another person “sat on our porch with a rife,” according to Gillespie. The local stake president with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “assigned his two big sons to ‘look out for’ the couple’s young children.

“Our house was on a corner with a very large yard and lots of playground equipment,” Gillespie said. “We became everybody’s best friend.”

‘A powerhouse’

Rep. Sandra Hollins met Gillespie in 2000 through the Greater Salt Lake chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, a national historic African American sorority.

“She was just a powerhouse,” Hollins said. “She was elegant, and she was beautiful, but she was intelligent.”

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 with me in running for office.”

“She has 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 worked together through the NAACP and Utah’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Commission.

“Bettye’s legacy is not only long, but it’s deep,” he said.

One of the things that stands out to Crawford about Gillespie is that when she reached out to community organizations, she didn’t tell them what they should be thinking or doing, he said. Instead, she helped them see how equity helped people.

“On my 18th birthday, she called me up and told me to come 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 to not only show up at the polls and vote, but to educate myself as a voter” and engage people about the issues, Andrews said.

Gillespie “spearheaded voter registration drives,” according to her obituary, “and often took her own young children door to door to register voters.”

“She’s a woman who wanted to make that everyone had a voice, everyone had an opportunity,” Andrews said.

Gillespie was also involved with 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 said, “a much more just, inclusive and beautiful place than she found it.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.