There is nothing small about Lillian Estelle Smith Gregory.
She is quiet and demure in stature, but she’s a “superwoman,” according to her 10 children whom she raised with her husband, the late and renowned comedian, civil and human rights activist and health advocate Dick Gregory, who died August 2017.
Unbeknownst to many, “Miss Lil,” as she is affectionately called, is a freedom fighter and activist in her own right, all for which she was honored during a special tribute at the Montgomery College Cultural Center on Monday.
Often overshadowed by her late husband, who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was the featured speaker at rallies and protests worldwide, she participated and suffered equally. When he was arrested, she often was arrested, too. When he was fingerprinted and sent to jail, so was she. And sometimes, when money was short and he turned down a protest to accept a paying gig, he would ask her to go instead, and she went willingly — sometimes accompanied by her children — and they all went to jail and felt honored to do so.
In the mid-’60s, when Gregory was eight months pregnant with twins, she was arrested in Memphis with nearly 20 women. When she was given permission to leave because of who she was, she refused and remained behind bars for two weeks, supporting the cause of the women she felt might find themselves jobless once released.
“I was headed back to Chicago, to my family and my apartment,” she said. “I decided it was more important to stay with them.”
Few in the auditorium filled with friends and admirers of Dick Gregory knew Lillian’s story — about where she came from in Willard, Ohio, and that she was the youngest of 14 children — seven girls and seven boys. That she left after working for two years after high school to save money to go to her choice school, Ohio State University, quit after the first day, then left for Chicago. That she found a job she loved at the University of Chicago and soon went to a nightclub — The Excalibur — with her sister where she saw and later met this “cute” comedian named Dick Gregory, who soon became her husband and the father of her 11 children. They lost one child, Richard, three months after he was born.
“I look back on my life and think, this little black girl from this little town of Willard, Ohio, coming to Chicago by happenstance and things just happened,” Gregory said in an interview with The Washington Informer. “I can’t tell you why. I can only say it was God’s plan and I had a wonderful life.”
It is a life her children believe is worthy of the world knowing. Her daughter, artist, educator and activist Ayanna Gregory, and her brother, Johance Maqubela, were among all 10 children, grandchildren and a host of relatives who poured accolades on the matriarch who turned 81 on Nov. 24. Poems, musical tributes and video greetings from Stevie Wonder, Susan Taylor, Rev. William Barber and MSNBC anchors Joy Reid and Lawrence O’Donnell were highlights of the two-hour program.
“I want to congratulate you particularly for all the things you’ve done for us, meaning our people,” said former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson. “I certainly don’t take that lightly because of the times you had to encounter, particularly in raising 10 kids at the same time while Dick was floating around the country. He’s my man, and I respect him, but I’ve got far more respect for you right now for what you had to do.
“Without people like yourself and Dick, taking positions like you did, there’s no way I would have ever had an opportunity to be a basketball coach at Georgetown University, and I’m aware of that,” Thompson said. “Thank you so much. Happy birthday, and raise a little hell while you’re at it.”
Keynote speaker Iyanla Vanzant, who said she drove to D.C. from New York to pay tribute, marveled at the decadeslong Gregory marriage.
“What kind of woman stays married to one man for 58 years?” she asked. “What kind of woman stays in the background and does the work, is the backbone and doesn’t need the glory? What kind of woman? The kind of woman I aspire to be.”
In a tribute to his wife, published in the program, Dick Gregory said, “And to the folks out there whose whole lives were filled with hatred and bigotry, y’all needed a Lillian. The world would be better off if they had a Lillian. You don’t need but 1.”
Supporters of the event presented Gregory with a financial love offering to help her with expenses she was left with after her husband’s death. And in the end, she said, “Thank you all so much. I appreciate all of you who are here. God bless you all.”