Sometimes one coincidence is all it takes.
Like the day that Dorothy Gilliam went to her part-time secretarial job at Louisville’s African-American newspaper, and the editor asked if she could fill in for an ailing co-worker.
Gilliam admits that the stories she wrote for the paper’s society page weren’t “War and Peace,” but there was something about the job of reporting that appealed to her.
“I cannot consciously say that I wanted to be a journalist,” says Gilliam. “But it just clicked for me, and it’s been a career that I have really loved ever since.”
Her stint at the Louisville Defender led Gilliam to a journalism degree and eventually a job as the first female African-American reporter at The Washington Post. Gilliam reflected on her career on KET’s Connections with Renee Shaw.
Gilliam was born in Memphis but grew up in Louisville, where her minister father helped build Youngs Chapel AME Church. After attending segregated elementary and secondary schools, Gilliam became part of the first class to integrate the old Ursuline College for women in Louisville. To pay her tuition, she took the secretary’s job at the the Louisville Defender. She continued her studies at Ursuline while she worked as a reporter for the paper.
“One of the things that it taught me was that journalism was a key that opened doors to new worlds,” Gilliam says.
Revealing the Terror of Segregation
Gilliam started at The Washington Post in 1961 after completing a degree at the prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism and an apprenticeship at Jet magazine. At the Post, she joined a newsroom of several hundred people, only two of whom were black.
“I think being the first African-American woman, I felt it was important for me to succeed so that I could open the door for others,” recalls Gilliam.
But that success wouldn’t come easily. Gilliam says she faced skepticism among her white colleagues that she wasn’t capable of doing the job. And navigating Washington, D.C., wasn’t without its challenges. Gilliam says the nation’s capital was a “sleepy, segregated city” in the early 1960s; some neighborhoods were off-limits to blacks, and many taxicabs wouldn’t pick up African-American passengers.
Despite those obstacles, Gilliam proved herself and soon got assignments covering the civil rights movement in the South, including the integration of the University of Mississippi by James Meredith in 1962.
“These are events that helped the nation see the harm and terror that was being perpetrated by the white Southerners against African-Americans simply because of the color of their skin,” Gilliam says.
Combining Journalism with Activism
Gilliam also uncovered the deplorable living conditions in a Washington orphanage for black children. Her reporting drew the attention of first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and the facility was soon closed and the children placed with families. Another series of stories led to the restoration of a slave cemetery at President George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon.
Gilliam stepped away from The Washington Post for a few years to start a family, but then returned in the 1970s as a writer and later a metro columnist. She also created a young journalists development program for the paper to help encourage African-American students to enter the field.
The Next Generation
“One of the things that helped me continue my journalistic career,” Gilliam says, “was the work that I did within the industry trying to help increase the numbers of minority journalists, and editors, and publishers.”
Following her tenure at The Washington Post, Gilliam spent a decade at George Washington University, where she further worked to promote journalism careers to the younger generations. She also served as the president of the National Association for Black Journalists.
Despite all the social changes she’s witnessed during her lifetime, Gilliam says many challenges remain for the country, especially on matters of racial and economic equality. And she hopes journalists will continue to reveal and bring clarity to those issues.
“We need many voices telling the story, so that the people of the nation can understand each other rather than sit in their separate cubicles and form stereotypes about each other,” Gilliam says.