Outfitted in a green and blue dress, navy suit jacket and wide-brimmed hat, Willie Mae Gaskin set out with an inspirational book of quotations in hand for a community walk at an east side police precinct.
The 89-year-old, with signature button pins proclaiming “Keep on Stepping” and “God bless America,” doesn’t like to miss an event – especially when it comes to serving her neighborhood.
That was the case last month when she made a short trek down Conner with other women from the community for the annual Faith and Blue walk hosted by the Detroit Police Department’s 5th precinct.
Gaskin, a devout Christian and lover of poetry, gifted a fellow attendee with a copy of her inspirational book, “Encouraging Myself to Keep on Stepping.”
“God bless you,” Gaskin told the woman.
“You’re going to enjoy it, too!,” added Gaskin’s friend, Sandy Butler.
Later, Gaskin talked to the group about another organization she’s passionate about–the Harding Block Club, which she’s been a part of for more than a half-century.
“We’ve been a block club for over 60 years and we worked, worked, worked,” she said of the group that’s lost membership over the years as residents have passed away.
“But, if you pick up a book from Warren Conner Development Coalition (now Eastside Community Network),” she said, “you’ll see the list of some of the things we walked for and fought for.”
Faith, community engagement and helping others are Gaskin’s life mission. Since moving to the West End neighborhood in the 1960s, she has become a beloved member of Detroit’s east side, whether that’s through engagement with the block club and ECN, or her involvement with the Detroit Police Department, which grew after the death of her son and police officer Gregory Gaskin more than 20 years ago.
Gaskin is also a published author, having written three books of inspirational poetry. She said she uses poetry as a way to put her thoughts down on paper. The first poem Gaskin remembers writing was for her granddaughter years ago called “Give That Smile Away.” Her granddaughter, about 12 years old at the time, had come up to Detroit for a visit from Atlanta.
“She had this frown on her face like, ‘Please get me out of here,’” Gaskin said, laughing. “And I was joking with her and I said, ‘Is that a smile I see behind that frown?’ I wrote that down and then I started compiling other pieces.”
She self-published her first book, “What Makes Me Different,” in 2003 and followed it up with a second book, “Perfect Peace.” In 2013, Gaskin released ”Encouraging Myself to Keep on Stepping.”
A police officer read one of her poems at the Faith and Blue event, a piece dedicated to the department called, “Detroit’s Finest.”
The 5th precinct is a few blocks from Gaskin’s home and Officer Karen Maxey said Gaskin calls almost every day to say a prayer for the officers. Maxey met the community advocate five years ago and said Gaskin attends every event from Police Appreciation Day to game night.
“She’s a wonderful, God-fearing woman,” Maxey said of Gaskin. “She really rallies for the police department.”
Kilah McClure, 45, said her grandmother has always been involved in the community.
“She never half-stepped on anything she ever did. If she did something, she did it with her whole heart,” said McClure, the daughter of one of Gaskin’s five children.
ECN President and CEO Donna Givens Davidson has known Gaskin since the early 1990s when Givens Davidson was a program director for what was then the Warren Conner Development Coalition. Gaskin, who was on the Warren Conner advisory committee for partnerships and economic independence, was part of the reason why Givens Davidson decided to rejoin the organization in 2015.
“She was always a source of inspiration for me and it was almost like that was a sign that I was meant to come back to work for this organization,” she said. “When I saw her at the annual meeting earlier that year, I just remembered how much I loved this organization and how much I love the people and so, she really inspired me to return in many ways.”
Connected to the community
Gaskin was born in Boligee, Alabama, the fourth of seven siblings. In 1949, her family moved to Hamtramck when Gaskin was 15 years old. She graduated from Hamtramck High School in the 1950s.
After high school, she worked a variety of gigs such as babysitting and a position at Black-owned pharmacy Barthell Drugs. Around the 1960s, Gaskin became an entrepreneur and started her own home hair business, with a baking and sewing business following later.
“I started doing people’s hair for a couple of dollars to get a little money, to get meals,” she said. “And I had a sewing business that ran for a long time. I made everything from boys’ suits to wedding dresses and prom dresses.”
Gaskin eventually married Henry Gaskin and moved to the West End, raising her family. Henry died in 2007.
She also became a mother figure to people in the neighborhood, including to Loretta Powell. The east side resident, who runs nonprofit Little Detroit Community Garden, said she’s known Gaskin since 1967 when she was six years old. The two families lived a block apart, with Powell on French Road and Gaskin staying on Harding Street.
Powell said Gaskin is always there when she’s going through tough times in life, like the death of Powell’s mother in 2013, and more recently, the funeral of her brother-in-law who died last month.
But Gaskin has also been by her side for happier times, like events for the community garden or hosted by City Council member Latisha Johnson.
“She’s my community mother; she’s everybody’s community mother,” Powell said. She encourages us to be involved in the community. She has that loving and caring heart…and I love that she knows God.”
Shirley Jones, who lives on St. Clair Street, said she remembers playing with her siblings and Gaskin’s children in the alley between the streets when she was young. Jones’ brother, Christopher White, and Gaskin’s son, Gregory, were best friends. Jones said you didn’t see one without the other.
“I just remember Mother Gaskin being a part of the community and her trying to make sure the alleys are clean, reminding people that things needed to be done,” Jones said. “She’s the mother of the east side.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, Gaskin began taking on more community service projects. She joined the Detroit Election Commission and began working with the city’s summer youth program. She also worked in Detroit Public Schools as a lunch aide and volunteered for after school programs at Hutchinson Elementary-Middle School and the Catherine C. Blackwell Institute.
“I connected with them and as they say, I didn’t take no stuff,” Gaskin said, laughing.
‘A little lady with a strong voice’
Today, Gaskin remains a part of ECN, which develops programs and resources for east side residents.
Around 2017, the organization created the Willie Mae Gaskin Volunteerism Award in her honor, said Givens Davidson.
“I love her smile, positive attitude and continued activism and involvement,” she said. “She’s an encourager, so she can criticize systems and things that don’t make sense and at the same time, support people and encourage them to do the job. I think of her as being very unique in that way.”
Jones was this year’s ECN volunteerism award recipient for her work with Gleaners Community Food Bank at Edward “Duke” Ellington Conservatory of Music and Art.
“She’s a little lady with a strong voice,” Jones said. “I always try to support her in whatever she’s doing. She’s one of our trailblazers.”
A love letter to Gregory
One of the bigger projects Gaskin takes on every year is “One Lunch, One Hug,” where she brings food to different police stations across the city. The event is not only a way to celebrate DPD officers, but serves as a tribute to Gregory, who died from a brain tumor in 2000 at the age of 35. Gregory was sworn in as an officer in 1998, initially starting out at the 9th precinct on the east side before joining the department’s gaming division, which oversees downtown’s three casinos, reported the Detroit Free Press. Gaskin holds the event on or around March 26; Gregory’s birthday.
While “One Lunch, One Hug” transitioned to more of a dropoff event the last couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaskin and McClure, her granddaughter, were back in-person this year, visiting officers at the 5th, 7th and 9th precincts, as well as DPD headquarters.
Gaskin said the lunch was inspired by something simple—going by the police department six months after Gregory died to give thanks.
“Every year, we just kept going back and it became “One Lunch, One Hug,” she said. “We serve them, thank them and encourage them.”
Added McClure: “That’s something she started for my uncle to honor him through his legacy. It keeps his memory alive.”
Gaskin is also the organizer of “Walk the Block,” an annual event that recognizes the first responders who died on September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Gaskin said she and community members walk the area around the Squad 6 fire station on Shoemaker.
“They look out for us and keep us from harm the best they can,” she said. “And so, that’s what we do; we thank them and keep them encouraged.”
‘Keep on Stepping’
The day after attending the Faith and Blue walk, Gaskin returned to the 5th precinct–this time for a balloon launch. She and many of the same women from the day before stood outside the station, clapping and watching as blue and white balloons floated into the sky.
The group went inside for cider and snacks and Gaskin shared another poem dedicated to her son and the men and women in uniform –”I Know Who I Am.”
“I know who I am,” she read aloud with confidence, pointing at the officers. “I am a servant of the people. I am a child of God. I am honest. I am faithful, strong and respected. I must walk the path laid out for me. I will not cross the line or walk too close to the edge. I walk with the men and women in blue and I am proud to serve you.”
“Amen!” yelled an officer in agreement. “Thank you, mother.”
McClure said not only has her grandmother helped the community, but she’s also there for her family. Gaskin’s family tree has grown considerably. She has 17 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren.
McClure said Gaskin has been by her side for her hospital stays while battling sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders.
“She’s been a rock; unmoving, unwavering,” McClure said. “The dedication and hard work that she has fed into each one of us… it’ll always be there. She has taught us to keep moving. As long as you keep stepping and you keep going, you will eventually get there.”
As she nears 90, Gaskin is present and active as ever, showing no signs of slowing down. And, the east side will forever be her home, she said.
“I just keep moving and the years go by and you say, ‘Oh my goodness, did I come that far?,’” she said. “I’m thankful the Lord allows me to be here and able to keep moving. At any age, you don’t stop and say, ‘Oh, I’m this and I’m that.’ Nuh-uh. It’s the Lord that gives you strength to keep on moving.”