Dorothy Butler Gilliam was the first black female reporter at The Washington Post. In a new memoir, she shares the struggles she faced, and provides insights that resonate in today's media landscape.
Imagine being a journalist trying to finish a story on deadline. Sounds stressful, right? Now imagine you’re a journalist trying to finish a story on deadline, and you can’t catch a cab back to your own newsroom to file the article.
That was the reality for Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first black female reporter at The Washington Post. As a journalist in the 1960s, she faced a number of struggles. When she was headed back to the newsroom from interviews, cabs would refuse to stop for her because of the color of her skin. She would have to write as much as she could by hand in her notebook, then quickly finish her story in the newsroom when she finally did get a ride.
Gilliam, 82, documents this struggle in her new memoir, “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America,” but the challenges she faced did not stop there. She could not eat in many of the restaurants in Washington, D.C., and was ignored by her white colleagues in public. She would sometimes endure panic attacks on her way to work, fearing what might happen throughout the day. And on top of the stress of chasing down a story, Gilliam could not stay in traditional lodging spaces where she was reporting, because they were segregated. This meant that when she was covering the civil-rights movement, Gilliam stayed in a black funeral home.
Despite all these hardships and more, Gilliam persisted and fought to make herself, and the black community, heard. Later in her career, she began writing a column focused on issues and successes in the black community. (That came with its own troubles: In addition to support, Gilliam’s column drew criticism.) She also co-founded the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education (MIJE), an organization that works to bring more people of color into the news media. She also founded the Young Journalists Development Program at The Washington Post, which aimed to provide future journalists with the necessary skills and tools to be successful in media.
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In addition to highlighting her thorough career, “Trailblazer” also touches on personal aspects of Gilliam’s life. She details her marriage to — and eventual divorce from — artist Sam Gilliam. She opens up about her depression, grief, a recurring compulsive eating habit and religion.
Far from a braggadocious “Look what I did!” memoir, Gilliam’s story resonates in today’s media environment. As racism continues in this country and combines with an increased distrust of news media, added pressure is put on journalists of color. For young journalists of color feeling hopeless, Gilliam’s book is an informative and inspiring source of solace.
“Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America” by Dorothy Butler Gilliam, Center Street, 291 pp., $27