“I am not a maid, I am a reporter for the Washington Post,” Dorothy Butler Gilliam told a doorman who didn’t want to let her enter a party via the front door. Gilliam, who was at the time working for the Washington Post, was invited to the 100th birthday party of a wealthy woman in Washington.
“The maid’s entrance is around the back,” the doorman told her after she tried entering through the front door. The doorman had unfairly mistaken the Black reporter to be a maid in a society that was largely segregated at the time. Gilliam had then already started work as the first African-American woman to report for the Washington Post newspaper. She began work there in 1961 and stayed there for the next 30 years as an editor and columnist helping change the narrative about Black people. But it wasn’t easy.
Born November 24, 1936, in Memphis, Tennessee, Gilliam attended Ursuline University in Louisville and transferred to Lincoln University to study journalism. While at Ursuline University, she began working as a typist for the Louisville Defender, a weekly Black newspaper. There, she got into journalism without any experience after she was asked to fill in for a society editor who wasn’t well.
After filing a report on the Black middle class of Kentucky’s largest city, the experience taught her that journalism was a profession that if she learned to do it and learned to do it well, it could open her up and expose her to new worlds, she told BBC recently.
Gilliam also worked for the Tri-State Defender and covered the integration of Little Rock. There, she met an editor from Jet magazine and was offered a job as an associate editor. She also worked for other leading Black magazines such as Ebony. Gilliam’s desire however was to work in daily news. After her education at Tuskegee Institute, she was accepted at Columbia University in the graduate school of journalism, becoming the only African-American student on the course.
She was subsequently offered a job by the Washington Post when she was 24. So many people refused to believe she was a reporter. Apart from taxi cabs not stopping for her, she also had to face racism in the newsroom.
“There were some old style editors who were still at the Post when I was there. One of them said, ‘We don’t cover Black murders because those are cheap deaths,’” Gilliam recalled in her interview with BBC. She said she wanted to leave the newsroom at that moment but she decided not to as she realized that she could help turn things around if she stayed working there.
Being in a strictly segregated society, it was also difficult for Gilliam to even get lunch around her place of work. She had to walk long distances to get food at restaurants that were willing to serve Black people. What’s more, she had to deal with her White colleagues pretending they didn’t know her when they met her in public. But she told none of her bosses about what she was going through as she felt that would be their excuse not to hire Black journalists.
Gilliam knew what she wanted to achieve while at Washington Post, and that was to not only cover negative stories about Black people but also cover the fullness of Black life, she told BBC. Thus, she covered civil rights events, including the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962. James Meredith being enrolled as the first African American at the university led to protests and Gilliam was there to cover those stories.
She even had to sleep at a Black funeral home as she was not allowed to stay at White hotels. “You do what you need to do in order to get the story,” she said to BBC.
Gilliam left the Washington Post in the mid-1960s to spend time with her family, but she returned to the newspaper as an assistant editor in the Style section in 1972. She loved her new role, as she was able to bring Black culture into the mainstream. By 1979 she was a columnist, focusing on issues of education, politics and race. She did that for almost 20 years before retiring in 2003.
As someone who was always for diversity, Gilliam was president of the National Association of Black Journalists from 1993 to 1995. She has also helped train scores of people from racial minorities as journalists through the Robert C Maynard institute for journalism education, which she co-founded. The pioneering reporter has also authored the 1976 biography Paul Robeson, All American and is a former fellow of the Freedom Forum at the Media Studies Center at Columbia University and the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.