Third in a three-part series about Phenomenal Women
Dorothy Butler Gilliam has witnessed events, overcome obstacles and seized opportunities that only the rarest of individuals could even imagine achieving.
As she shares in the foreword to her award-winning memoir, “Trailblazer,” she made the most of her resourcefulness, wit and skill, all while being a “dark-skinned woman” born in the segregated South, to emerge as the first female African American reporter at The Washington Post.
Now, as the wife, mother, grandmother and mentor to scores of young members of the media, including both this reporter and the publisher of this publication, and with a 60-year award-wining career behind her, Gilliam continues to advocate for greater diversity in the industry.
With the energy, a zest for life and the determination to complete the mission on which she first embarked in 1957 as a reporter for The Memphis Tri-State Defender, a Black weekly, this amazing octogenarian counts as an icon in anyone’s book, particularly journalists of color who, whether they realize it or not, have walked through doors that Gilliam forced open or knocked down, braving storms that would have made many others abandon the journey.
So, what remains on her list of “things to do” in today’s strange new land – a post-pandemic world that President Joe Biden, the former vice president who served with our nation’s first Black commander-in-chief, now guides? And what should be our nation’s priorities as America and the world face the future?
As she reflects on current events and the headline news, Gillam said while she thinks Biden has done an admirable job, she believes it’s time to direct our resources back home.
“Of course I understand why we have provided assistance to Ukraine and I initially agreed with the decision but I think we’ve given enough financial assistance and other resources,” Gilliam said. “Americans are suffering because of inflation, the pandemic and the high rate of poverty, especially African Americans. And it’s a problem that has been disproportionately effecting Blacks for decades if not centuries. Remember that Dr. King was very concerned about poverty near the end of his life.”
“And then in some parts of the U.S., like Jackson, Mississippi, they don’t have clean water to drink. In addition, there’s the huge income gap between whites and Blacks. When will America finally begin to address that so that African Americans can have equal opportunities and the chance for better lives? It’s time that we receive reparations – that is for those whose ancestors were formerly enslaved in this country. But that’s going to take true courage on the part of some of our political leaders who will need to speak out in support of reparations.”
The Early Days as a Beat Reporter
Gilliam grew up in a nurturing Black church community that helped to solidify her self-image as she faced numerous hardships throughout her adolescence. That foundation would prepare her for hardships she could not imagine when she began her journalism career.
After joining The Post, she recalled being instructed to enter by the back door when she arrived for interview assignments. During her coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, unlike her white colleagues, she was unable to stay in many of the hotels.
“I was at the University of Mississippi when the university integrated in 1962 and James Meredith enrolled for classes,” she said. “Those whites harbored an extreme hatred for Blacks and it took thousands of federal troops to maintain peace. In fact, he had to stay in a dormitory alone, and was protected by guards who stayed there with him. Several people lost their lives on the first night after he enrolled.”
“I always had a colleague, a Black photographer named Ernest Withers who accompanied me and helped me negotiate the norms of the South. He knew how to address whites properly, yes sir, no sir, and that was important because any white person could stop a Black person whenever they chose – they didn’t have to be a law enforcement officer.”
“Ernest also helped me find lodgings. While in Mississippi, I slept in a funeral home next to the corpses – it was the only option I had. White supremacy was the law of the land back in the 60s. And when I think about people now, like George Floyd who was killed by police, it reminds me of the kind of atmosphere that was prevalent and which sparked the Watts Riots, or when police were exonerated after beating Rodney King in Los Angeles which led to more rioting in LA.”
“The bottom line is we (Blacks) are still under attack in this country in so many ways. And white supremacy is still prevalent – a strong factor that limits the rights of and options for Blacks.”
Education Opened the Door to Success
Gilliam was born in Memphis, Tenn., and grew up in Louisville, Ky. She graduated cum laude from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., with a B.A. in journalism and later furthered her studies at the Columbia School of Journalism. She was married to Sam Gilliam, a well-known Washington Color School painter. She has three daughters, several grandchildren and is a faithful member of Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington, D.C., where she serves on its Steward Board and chairs the Commission on Public Relations.
She left The Post after the birth of her children to devote more time to them, but returned in 1972 as its Style section assistant editor. In 1979, Gilliam turned her journalistic skills to opinion writing as a columnist for The Post. Her column ran in The Post’s Metro section for 19 years. She retired from The Washington Post in June 2003.
Her lifelong passion and a distinguishing characteristic of her career would be improving newsroom diversity. One example was a volunteer project which she founded in 1977 to train minority journalists with eight other colleagues. The project soon progressed into the vibrant Robert Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, where she served as board chair from 1985-1992.
From 1993-1995, Gilliam served as the president of the National Association of Black Journalists. In 1998, she left editorial writing to found and develop the Young Journalists Development Program, a long-term initiative of The Post to educate, cultivate and hire aspiring minority newspaper journalists – something which she still does today.
“I began to mentor youth many years ago because it was apparent that as students of color entered college, many of them had very poor writing skills,” she said “Those who had dreams of becoming journalists had to get the basics down. But their high schools often failed to adequately prepare them. So, I did what I could to help them overcome any deficiencies they had. I also advised them as they began to hunt for jobs.”
Gilliam said being an African American female reporter was often frightening, humiliating and a lot of hard work but she was determined to stand her ground, improve her skills and prove her worth to her colleagues and superiors.
“Women are still under the throes of a patriarchal society and most of the wealth is controlled by white men,” she said. “Most of the leadership positions are dominated by white men. However, I am also very concerned about the escalation of violence against Black men, especially at the hands of police. I still hear Black men say they feel very uncomfortable, extremely uncomfortable, when police confront them. They just don’t know what may happen. That’s a big problem that we can no longer ignore.”
The Work Continues for ‘Mission Possible’
Gilliam remains busy and is often invited to speak in front of women’s groups, college students, just about anyone. So, a typical day entails preparation for upcoming speeches and interviews. She said she also tries to get in some time for traveling, which she really enjoys, and spending time with her family and friends.
“I still live in D.C. but I also go to Chicago and Brooklyn a lot because my children live there,” she said. “All of my grandchildren are either in undergraduate school or graduate school. Now that I’m retired, I can speak my mind and don’t have to be objective like I did when I was a reporter. I like that freedom.”
She recently started a writing lab at Wilberforce University and the program is named after her father, Adee C. Butler, who attended the university.
“They had to delay the kickoff because of the pandemic but I think they’re about to start the program,” she said. “I’ll be joining the students and faculty when things are underway and I’ll be speaking to them about my father and my career. That’s the kind of thing I enjoy doing these days. Giving back, encouraging youth and trying to make a difference for the next generation,” she said.
Journalist, author, social justice advocate, media diversity expert – these are just a few of the titles that Dorothy Butler Gilliam holds and hats she wears.
She’s without a doubt, a phenomenal woman.
Gloria Steinem, the feminist activist, writer and editor, said this about her friend.
“Dorothy Gilliam is that most rare of revolutionaries, one who not only climbs the barricades, but who lets down a ladder to help others up, too. In her more than six decades at the centers of journalism in New York and Washington, she has often been the first African American woman and the best of everything.”
In part one of this three-part series about “Phenomenal Women,” we featured a multi-talented and highly respected leader in Newark’s arts community, Fayemi Shakur, who continues to advocate for her city and its citizens. In part two, we chronicled the life of a corporate executive and a proud HBCU graduate who continues to give back to her community in phenomenal ways while breaking ceilings in the Fortune 500 world. And while Women’s History Month 2023 has come to an end, you can bet that we will continue to showcase the lives of ordinary women as they do extraordinary things.