Dorothy Butler Gilliam stood in front of the elevator in the newspaper building lobby. It was her first day at the job and her excitement was tempered by the words of her journalism professor roaring in her head. “You’ve got so many handicaps, you’ll probably make it,” he had said. It was 1961. The country was awash in a maelstrom of civil rights turbulence with racism rearing its ugly head as the establishment fought to keep the status quo and new voices called for change. And Gilliam was walking right into the storm as the first African-American female reporter to be hired by the predominantly white male-run Washington Post

DOROTHY BUTLER GILLIAM IN SARASOTA FOR THE HEAR ME ROAR LUNCHEON. PHOTO BY EVAN SIGMUND.

 

As she recounts in her memoir, Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America, this was only the beginning of an esteemed and prolific career as an award-winning journalist, editor, columnist and educator fighting a lifelong battle against racism and sexism. And as the recent recipient of the SRQ Women in Business Trailblazer Award, Gilliam reflected on the path she forged, and what it took to pursue her dreams. 

Born in 1936 in Memphis, TN, the eighth child of Adee Conklin Butler and Jessie Mae Norment Butler, Gilliam’s father was a well-respected minister who passed away when she was 14, after which the family struggled financially, eventually living a sharecropper-style life in a Kentucky cabin with no indoor plumbing.

At the age of 16, Gilliam was one of eight women who integrated Ursuline, a white catholic college. It was a supportive environment, without the protest and turbulence occurring at the public schools, but she and the other black students kept to themselves outside of classes and the significance of her experience there was not lost on her. She recalls that she went to the restroom to wash her hands and a white girl stepped up to wash her hands right next to her. Gilliam stared at their contrasting reflections in the mirror. Having up to that point been relegated to segregated restaurants, train cars, pretty much everything, this experience was surreal. “Standing right next to a white person in my classes, a girl my age in the flesh, felt more like a dream than a reality,” she says. 

As a freshman, Gilliam got a job after school as a secretary at a black-owned weekly newspaper, The Louisville Defender, to bring in money to help her family. But when the society reporter called in sick, Gilliam was tasked with filling in—and fell in love with journalism, believing it a passport to new experiences. “Louisville had a small, black middle class and I was sent out to cover their stories—people who lived very differently than we lived,” she says. “That’s how the feeling that journalism would and could continue to open new worlds and indeed, it has.” Gilliam graduated cum laude from Lincoln University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and then applied to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. On first try, she was not accepted, the administration explaining that she did not have enough liberal arts credits from Lincoln to qualify. She later learned that the person who processed her application had marked in the notes that her “skin was very dark.” She worked to get the credits, reapplied and was accepted—the only black woman in her class—and earned her master’s degree.

In addition to the Louisville Defender, Gilliam also worked for another black weekly paper, the Tri-State Defender, as well as Jet Magazine, but she wanted to expand her experience at a mainstream daily paper. There was only one black daily in the country at that time, and a well-respected one, but Gilliam responded to the changing times and the call of Dr. Martin Luther King to make in-roads in white dominated organizations and so set her sights on The Washington Post determined to bring a fresh perspective to the paper.

As a City Desk reporter at The Post, Gilliam quickly realized the cost of breaking into the system. The specter of racism, gender bias and prejudice was ever-constant and the atmosphere at work could be as insidious as what faced her on assignment. “I couldn’t walk into that sea of white men without being aware it was like I had two invisible weights that they didn’t have—the weight on the left was race and the weight on the right was gender,” she says. “I was very conscious of what I was doing. I didn’t think of myself as a trailblazer at that point, but I was very aware that I was breaking barriers.”

Outside of the office, colleagues she worked with on a daily basis would pass Gilliam on the street and pretend not to know her. Black reporters could not go to white restaurants, so instead of eating with her colleagues she was relegated to black establishments, sometimes joined by a staffer who had been assigned by her boss to have lunch with her. White cabbies would not stop for her and black cabbies were scarce around her office, so Gilliam would compose her stories in shorthand on location, then stand on the street as her deadline grew nearer, sometimes with tears streaming down her face, until someone finally picked her up. 

And even if she was lucky enough to find a ride to her office, the prospect of getting the story in the first place was a battle. Gilliam was sent to cover the birthday party of a 100-year-old white society matron in a tony part of town only to be met by a butler who, incredulous that she was a reporter, refused her entrance through the front door. “The doorman told me that the maid’s entrance was in the back,” she says. “Not that anything is wrong with maids—my mother worked as a domestic worker—but I wasn’t one.”

Offensive assumptions and dangerous situations were a constant. When Gilliam was sent to cover the integration of the University of Mississippi, she knew it was a dangerous assignment and she could very well be risking her life. But she also knew The Post had faith in her ability to earn the trust of locals and get the real story of what was happening, so she and a colleague headed to Oxford. While driving on a country road they were pulled over by a truck full of angry locals in a gun rack-topped truck. After a harrowing encounter during which they were advised to “stay away from Oxford,” they made it to town only to find that there were no black hotels and no white hotel would admit them. Gilliam spent the night in a black-owned funeral home, grateful for the refuge.

Despite the humiliation and danger, Gilliam did not discuss the challenges she faced with her superiors. She was too concerned that any sort of complaint would provide an excuse for them to refuse to hire black journalists. She was not going to give them the opportunity to say black reporters “ just can’t get the job done,” and knew that if she didn’t stick it out through the tough times, it would be much harder for those who came after her. So she persisted. She found her voice covering civil rights, poverty, welfare, juvenile courts and youth crimes, writing from the perspective of the people living through the challenges. “There are just so many lies told about black people and so much negative that has been a part of this whole system,” she says. “I knew what I was doing. We had to break through.”

Gilliam credits her faith based-upbringing and a nurturing community of family, church, neighbors and teachers for her resilience and courage—and a resistance to feeling hatred for the perpetrators in the face of humiliating and disheartening experiences. “I came from a very rich heritage,” she says. “A strong, loving father and mother, a strong church family. It was an all-black working-class community, and the children were considered precious and developed in a very special way. When we used to have to walk to junior high school, we’d pass this white neighborhood and these kids would throw rocks at us.” Gilliam’s teachers would counsel her. “Don’t throw rocks back at them, don’t fight them back,” they would say. “No matter how badly people treat you, you don’t have to fight back because you know that you are more than what they say you are or what they think you are. Hate hurts the hater more than the hated.” 

In the middle of her time on the City Desk, Gilliam asked for a reduced part-time work schedule to spend more time with her children. But she was told that if the paper agreed to her request it would be bad for morale. If they made an exception for her, the next thing they knew, the male reporters would want “time off to write the great American novel.” So Gilliam took a break to stay at home with her family and kept her hand in the reporting world writing freelance articles and appearing on local television. 

In 1972, she went back to The Post to edit the Style section, which was so well received it became the model for similar sections at newspapers around the country. In 1979, she started a new opinion column sharing her views on education, politics and race. She was there for 19 years when the mood changed, she says, and there were rumbles that her column had started to sound “too black.”

After she retired from The Post, Gilliam focused her attention and efforts on paving the way for other black journalists and providing opportunities for future generations. She became president of the National Association of Black Journalists and of Unity: Journalists of Color, working tirelessly to increase the diversity of voices in the press. She co-founded the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education to educate and promote minority journalists. “This marked the beginning of my lifelong work to actively participate in diversifying mainstream news media,” she says.

To bring more young people into journalism, Gilliam created the Young Journalists Development Program, for The Washington Post in 1997. The initiative was designed to educate, support  and provide journalistic opportunities for minority high school students. The Post sent journalists to work with the students and even printed some of their newspapers. “Some of the best reporters would go out with me on their lunch hour and help the students edit their newspapers,” she says, “This was a way to share with young people who had no notion that they had a voice—and that voice needed to be developed and it deserved to be developed—and that voice echoed in their media. It was a very strong program and it was one that really made a difference.”

In 2004, a Shapiro Fellow at fellow at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Gilliam expanded her outreach in founding Prime Movers Media, the nation’s first journalism mentorship program for underserved students at urban schools, which sends veteran journalists and university interns to mentor high school student journalists in Washington D.C and Philadelphia.  

While encouraged by the strides made to nurture budding young journalists, Gilliam is worried that they are missing a crucial element that was the key to her resilience and fortitude—the spiritual tools she found to be so helpful. “I am concerned with the growing lack of belief in God in younger generations,” she says. “Belief in self only can lead to narcissism and defeat.” When asked what advice she would give to the new generation of leaders she says, “Don’t take the humiliation of racism and white supremacy personally. Remember what you can control, work hard at what you can control and leave the rest up to God.”

Throughout her rich and successful legacy as a defender of journalists of color and promoter of  diversity in newsrooms, she has continued to advocate for civil rights and social change. And she has made a difference. But knows there’s much more to be done. Concerned about the rapidly rising dissonance and polarization in the country, she encourages dialogue as a way to change the tide. 

“I do believe in the power of voice, in the power of conversation, in the power of dialogue,” she says. “We are definitely in a season of change and there’s a lot being revealed and those are the things that we need to have conversations about. Those conversations can help those who are unaware, become more aware and those who are asleep, wake up.”

At 82 with a more than six-decade-long career advocating for civil rights and social change, she is taking a breather after publishing a well-received memoir to focus on a more personal transformation. “I spent the last couple years chained to my computer to write the book,” she says. “Being free from that has been exhilarating and just having the book out, meeting people, talking to people, that has been fun because I love people and I love to hear them. That’s part of why I love being a journalist. I love to hear their stories. But I’m also concerned about the country now, so I’m looking forward to having more conversations about the issues that need to be addressed. 

It’s not fun, but it will be satisfying if I’m able to do that.”