The community lost another restaurant icon with the death Tuesday of Speed Queen Barbecue matriarch Betty Jean Gillespie.
Gillespie’s death is the second this year of a noted Black restaurateur. In January, Willie Perkins, Jr. of the popular Mr. Perkin’s Family Restaurant died. Like Perkins’ death, Gillespie’s passing leaves a huge void in our community from a business and historical standpoint.
We’re confident both businesses will survive and continue to thrive at the respective helms of family and relatives who will and have dutifully carried on the mission to feed our community some of the most unique and delicious food that can be found in Milwaukee.
Both Speed Queen and Mr. Perkins represent a very, very small number of Black owned and operated eateries in our community. Upon hearing about the death of Gillespie, one of our staffers lamented the overall scarcity of quality Black-owned restaurants, a tiny collection of “islands” in a “sea” of white-owned establishments that can be found all over the city.
Yes, there have been ambitious entrepreneurs who have tried (and, alas, failed) to make a go of the restaurant business, one of the most demanding and toughest business ventures anyone can get into.
We hope that there are ambitious and community minded-individuals out there who want to not only increase the number of Black eating establishments but, through their existence and dedication to quality food and four star service, expunge once and for all the myth that Black restaurants can’t make it in Milwaukee, especially in the central city.
Gillespie and Perkins both did their part to tear down that mental barrier. Let’s hope others who love food and want to give back to their community have the courage and vision to “serve-up” a delicious reality of their own.