Deletta Gillespie, who is black, learned her first painful lesson about racism at age five.
“My best friend Jeanette was a little white girl who lived three doors down from me,” said Gillespie on Monday to an audience at the Blue Mountain Community College Arts & Culture Festival. “She’d come over after school to my house. We’d watch cartoons together. We’d color in our coloring books. We’d play with dolls.”
When the friend was late one day, Deletta walked over to her house. She just reached the yard when the door opened and an older sister came out and said, “She’ll be right out. Go on and walk home.”
Later, Deletta asked her friend why they never played at her house. The little girl answered, matter-of-factly, that “my momma don’t like blacks.” A couple of nights later at dinner, Deletta told her own mother about the exchange.
“To this day, I remember the sound of the knife as it struck the plate,” Gillespie said.
Her mother, livid, banned her daughter’s white playmate from the house. Three times, her friend knocked on the door only to be shooed away by Deletta’s mother. The third time, Deletta looked out at her friend through the screen door as her mother stood back. The friends put their palms together from opposite sides of the screen until the door closed.
“That was the last time she came to my house,” Gillespie said.
On Monday, Gillespie relayed the story with a sadness that has persisted for more than 50 years. The Baltimore actress, singer and college professor spoke in BMCC’s Bob Clapp Theatre about “Black Lives Matter: A Performing Artist’s Perspective.”
Gillespie grew up in a musical family. Her father played the upright bass in the United States Army Band and later backed some of the great West Coast jazz musicians. Her mother, who played 18 instruments, started performing professionally at age 13. Music filled their home, ranging from classical to jazz, from Three Dog Night to Waylon Jennings. Gillespie sang her first solo at church at age four.
Also an author and playwright, Gillespie performed in the Baltimore Rock Opera Society’s “The Determination of Azimuth” — the story of the black women who made history at NASA with their achievements. The play predates the movie “Hidden Figures,” which tells the same story. Gillespie also performed her own one-woman show called “Panties UP, Dress DOWN,” a collection of her mother’s and grandmother’s homespun advice.
“I grew up with the adage that you are going to have to be twice as good to get half as much,” she said.
Gillespie exudes a cheery confidence. “If you can’t find a reason to smile,” she told the BMCC audience, “you’re done.”
That said, some historical events and ongoing societal attitudes sadden her. The more than 4,000 lynchings of black people in this country’s history. The disproportionate number of blacks who are stopped and sometimes treated unfairly by police. Historical events such as the Tulsa Race Riots that fade from history books because they don’t put whites in a positive light.
Few in the BMCC crowd had heard of the Tulsa Race Riots, so Gillespie gave a condensed account. In 1921, a black man and a white woman got into the same elevator car. He stumbled and fell onto her. The woman claimed impropriety and the man became the target of an armed mob. By the time things had cooled, 35 blocks of the black part of Tulsa burned and close to 300 people died.
In more recent history, the Black Lives Matter movement emerged on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman after he shot a black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. Black Lives Matter led to “Blue Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.”
Gillespie said she has family members in law enforcement. She agrees that all lives matter.
“I was taught under the umbrella of God that people are all one,” Gillespie said. “This thing called racism — this thing called prejudice — doesn’t make sense.”
According to Gillespie, it’s simple, really.
“We’re all in this together,” she said. “We’re all on the same team.”
Gillespie said she is proud of the creative and military achievements of her race. She ticked off inventions and innovations by African Americans, which include traffic lights, blood transfusions, gas masks, the first open heart surgery and even the Super Soaker.
“My ancestors helped to build this country,” she said.
As BMCC’s artist in residence at the festival, Gillespie will appear several times this week. At 11 a.m. Tuesday, she will present “Text Construction: The Art of Narrative.” At 7 p.m. Wednesday, she will perform “Songs of Protest, Songs of Peace.” Both events take place at the Bob Clapp Theatre. At the Hermiston campus, she will present “Black Lives Matter” at 1 p.m. Wednesday and “Common Threads: Similarities in the Liberation Movement in Black and Latino Communities” at noon on Thursday.