Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Comedy

GREGORY: Thousands of letters came in saying, "We didn't know Negro children and white children were the same -- " Because where else do white folk -- my momma wasn't going to discuss her children around white folks. So where else would a white person hear someone like you talking about other than on TV? Well, you was never there to talk, and so NBC got so many calls that day of people who just loved it that they brought me back twenty-two times.

BOND: Really?

GREGORY: Yep, yep. And so I'm just saying in my life, little things have happened that led to something else that led to something else, that now when I look back and realize that I had no control over. So to go back to "where did I learn that from?" Well, you see, every time I'd go to the dentist, it was a black dentist, and a Republican. Most of the black business people was Republicans. They called you "Sonny" and they asked you about your grades, and they asked you how was school, huh? And so these folks became Dad. These folks, everywhere you would go, the black doctor, huh? The black barber -- "Let me see your report card," you know, that whole -- I mean before I became a celebrity in St. Louis, that was the respect that the black community had for a child. "Are you behaving?" You know. And it was kind of interesting because on my report card -- and my report cards scanned the alphabet, man. I don't know if anybody ever made a Z. I had a dude who flunked me in English. How you gonna flunk me in the only language I know? But on the bottom of my report card they would always put, "Richard is a good boy."

Now finally -- and I'm not trying to tie the show up with this subject -- it's lucky that I became a comic, you know why?

BOND: Why?

GREGORY: Because back then, black folks wasn't used to the word comedian or comic. So if you were funny, they didn't say, "Julian, woo! He funny." They said "That boy sure can lie."

BOND: Yes.

GREGORY: Well, to a child "lie" has a negative connotation. I mean think about that. You know what the old folks say, "You know so and so plays the organs, you know he's funny." Well, to a little child, what do "funny" mean? Or you'd hear them say, "You know so and so -- preacher so and so, he's gay." But to a little child, what do "gay" mean? Laughter. So I grew up thinking to be funny, to be gay, man, that's what I want to do.

And so I made a joke out of it. I said that I was fourteen years old and in the gym and the gym teacher said, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" I said, "I want to be funny and gay." When I saw him unbutton his belt, I started running. When I stopped running I set the world's record in the high school mile.

But I'm saying children -- so all my life, all the adults, all the grown folks that hear me, and they said, "Never heard such in my life -- that boy sure can lie." But the odds -- because there was nobody that they could pattern you behind. There was nobody -- where would grandma have ever heard of a comic? They don't go to nightclubs, you know. They weren't on TV. There was no TV and so that was the odds that came through. But I knew people like Wheeler, head of the Urban League, the principal. And then as I start making a mark in athletics, then you exposed to a whole different side of that black --

And then also remember that if you lived in St. Louis and made $10 million a day, you still had to live in the Negro neighborhood. It might have been upscale, but you lived there. You could not live around your peers. And so we had all of that, that was there, that we ran into everyday. Across the street from me was the number one Negro restaurant in St. Louis where the doctors and lawyers ate. So I sit across the street and watched them. All that had influence on me. Every Sunday -- "Hi, Dr. Evans how are you?" "Hey, Dick how you feel, son?" And I worked over there in the restaurant. I washed dishes over there and I would see them and talk with them. So you could just see this whole wealth of integrity that I wanted to be like.