In 1961, Dorothy Butler Gilliam defied the odds by becoming the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post.
At a time when Black people — let alone Black women — were not expected to have bylines in national papers, Gilliam was breaking down barriers, writing stories about the civil rights movement and the everyday lives of Black people.
While today we have Soledad O’Brien, Jemele Hill, April Ryan and Nikole Hannah-Jones, Gilliam’s career started when there weren’t many other Black women in mainstream media to look to for inspiration.
We met Gilliam in her Washington, D.C. home, where she still writes, this time telling her own story in a memoir called “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.”
Here’s what we learned about what it was like to be a Black reporter in the 1960s:
Black journalists once had to work undercover (yes, undercover) just to do their jobs.
Gilliam went to Little Rock when she was working for the Tri-State Defender to see the drama of integration taking place.
“One of the things that came out of that experience was that I saw how hard black reporters from the black press worked covering the civil rights story,” Gilliam told theGrio.
“Very often they were incognito. They would pretend to be preachers and put the Bible under their arm and they’d have their typewriter wrapped in clothing, and they would then send their copy by train sometimes the Pullman Porters help them.”
No matter what credentials you have, people may still doubt you.
Gilliam graduated cum laude from Lincoln University with a bachelors degree in journalism. She applied to white newspapers and still couldn’t get a job.
Gilliam would go on to graduate from Columbia Journalism School, where she was the only Black woman in her class. Once when she showed up to report a story, a doorman couldn’t believe Gillum was a journalist and assumed she was a maid.
Being a woman in media always carries an extra layer of baggage.
When Gilliam got pregnant, she went to her bosses and asked for a modified work schedule so that she could spend more time with her baby. But apparently women came in second place.
“The editor looked at me, and he said, ‘We can’t do that because if we give you extra time off… we have all kinds of men in this room, and they would want to have time to write the great American novel,” Gilliam told theGrio. “There were not that many women, certainly not that many working mothers.”
News has changed in a lot of ways, but some things never change.
Gilliam says that diversity in media has always been a problem.
“When we would go to our white editors and say ‘you know we need to have more black reporters’ they would say, ‘We can’t find any qualified.’ And we knew that wasn’t true,” Gilliam told theGrio.
After riots broke out in major cities in the 1960s, fueled by racial tensions, a government report found that the media played a role in the problem.
“The Kerner Commission in 1967 really blamed the daily press in part for the urban uprisings,” Gilliam continues. “They said the reason this happened is because you have only been looking at America through white eyes. We’re still fighting that battle.”
Despite obstacles, you can still make an impact.
Despite racism and sexism, Gilliam went on to have a successful nationally syndicated column and help lead The Washington Post’s style section as Assistant Editor.
“One of the things I wanted to do was to share with all of the readers of The Post some of the great things about black culture. Because with the segregation everything was separate. I wanted to share [about] Blacks who were able to rise above segregation.“
Gilliam would also become president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), and advocate for the hiring of journalists in newsrooms across America.
She offers this advice for the current and future generations of Black reporters who are picking up the torch:
“They should come determined not to take things personally. They should come ready to really work 24/7 because that’s what’s involved in being a good journalist and you pay a price. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it because you contribute to the strength of the nation.”
Watch our special Black History Month interview with Dorothy Butler Gilliam below.