Dorothy Butler Gilliam: ‘I am not a maid, I am a reporter’

Dorothy working at the Washington Post

Dorothy Butler Gilliam began her career as a black female journalist on a major US newspaper at a time when society was still largely segregated. The BBC’s Farhana Haider asked her how being a black woman in a white man’s world had shaped her career.

When Dorothy Butler Gilliam arrived at a wealthy Washington woman’s 100th birthday party the doorman told her she couldn’t enter via the front door. “The maid’s entrance is around the back,” he explained.

“I am not a maid, I am a reporter for the Washington Post,” she replied.

Dorothy was the first African American woman to report for the newspaper. She started there in 1961, and went on to work as an editor and columnist over the next three decades, witnessing seismic changes in US society, and in the media.

Dorothy got into journalism by accident when she was in her first year of college and worked as a secretary at the Louisville Defender, a weekly black newspaper. One day the society editor was unwell and she was asked to fill in. Suddenly, with no experience, she was sent out to file a report on the black middle class, still then quite small, of Kentucky’s largest city.

“It was an eye-opening experience and I saw that journalism was a profession that, if I learnt to do it and learnt to do it well, it could open me up and expose me to new worlds,” she says.

After college she went on to work for leading black magazines such as Jet and Ebony but her ambition was to work in daily news. She got a place on the journalism programme at Columbia University in New York – the only African American student on the course – and was offered a job by the Washington Post at the age of 24.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam working for Jet
image captionDorothy Butler Gilliam in about 1958, while working for Jet magazine in Chicago

Being the paper’s first African American female reporter proved extremely challenging.

Taxi cabs wouldn’t stop for her. “I would stand outside the post and they would slow down and then they would see my dark brown face and they would hit the accelerator.”

People often wouldn’t believe she was a reporter, like the elderly woman’s doorman. She also had to face some racist attitudes in the newsroom itself.

“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,'” Dorothy says. She wanted to scream and run out. Instead she told herself that it was the kind of attitude that would stop if she kept working.

Though she often had panic attacks on her way to work, she would talk to former colleagues from Jet magazine for support. Her Christian faith helped her too, she says, particularly when she was feeling very isolated by her white colleagues.

“Inside the newsroom some of them would say hello or nod or even speak to me but if they saw me outside the building they would pretend they didn’t know me. That was so humiliating. It was like they didn’t want to acknowledge they knew a black person in front of other white people.”

But Dorothy didn’t discuss the challenges she faced with her editors. She was concerned that any complaint would give them an excuse not to hire black journalists.

Even getting lunch was difficult for Dorothy as a black woman in 1960s America.

Dorothy had grown up in a state strictly segregated between black and white by explicit race laws. Black people could be prevented from voting, their educational and employment opportunities were restricted, and basic human dignities were denied.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam working for the Louisville Defender
image captionDorothy Butler Gilliam pictured with West Point graduates, while working for the Louisville Defender in about 1954

But even in Washington restaurants were still segregated, and those closest to the Washington Post offices wouldn’t serve African Americans. Dorothy would walk however long it took in order to get to a cafeteria where she could be comfortable.

She was keenly aware of her own ability to tell black stories in a new way. The negative images of African Americans that she read in the mainstream press were largely because black voices were not being heard.

“I didn’t want to only cover the negative stories about black people, I wanted to cover the fullness of black life,” she says

Dorothy covered major civil rights events, including in 1962 the integration of the University of Mississippi, where there were protests and riots after a young student, James Meredith, was enrolled as the first African American at the university.

Dorothy was assigned to talk to the black communities to gauge their reaction to the integration of this bastion of white supremacy. They told her of their hope for the future based on what James Meredith had done, their confidence that there would be more integration. She saw men and women who were brave and hopeful and that’s what she wrote about.

When she read the stories written by white journalists she noticed they painted a picture of black people as scared and fearful. “And that’s not what I found at all.”

While she was in Mississippi she was not allowed to stay at white hotels and ended up staying at a black funeral home. “I slept with the dead,” she says. “You do what you need to do in order to get the story.”

Dorothy Butler Gilliam today

Dorothy left the Washington Post in the mid-1960s after having her third child. She pushed to work part-time but was told she was lowering morale when, for a short while, she was allowed to work four days a week. She was rehired in 1972 though, as an assistant editor in the Style section, which she loved.

“That was really exciting, to be able to bring much more about black culture into the Style section. Because once again it was a time when white people just didn’t know much about what black people were doing, except the reasonably wealthy ones who could talk to their maids or their janitors. The whole point was to bring that black culture into the mainstream.”

In this role, Dorothy was also able to hire people, and hired journalists who could write about the black experience. Then in 1979 she became a columnist, focusing on issues of education, politics and race, continuing for 19 years. She retired from the Post in 2003.

Throughout a 50-year career in journalism Dorothy always championed diversity. She was president of the National Association of Black Journalists and she co-founded and is a board member of the Robert C Maynard institute for journalism education, which has trained thousands of people from racial minorities as journalists.

“You really cannot tell the true story or the full story if you are only telling it through the eyes of one group of people,” she says.

“And if you don’t have people who see the world through different eyes represented, you just don’t have a full picture of what’s going on.”

Dorothy Butler Gilliam is the author of Trailblazer, A Pioneering Journalist’s fight to make the media look more like America