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  • An Interview With Dorothy Butler Gilliam
  • Charles Henry Rowell

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Dorothy Butler Gilliam African American Journalist

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This interview was conducted and recorded at the home of Dorothy Butler Gilliam in Washington, DC, on Thursday, August 13, 2013.


It is not uncommon to find the following words as the opening to commentary or informational articles about you: “Dorothy Gilliam, first black female reporter elected by The Washington Post …” What does that mean to you to read or hear “first black female”?


It brings back a lot of early memories. I think the right verb would be that I was hired by The Washington Post. That was 1961 before the Voting Rights Act or the Civil Rights Act had been passed by Congress and signed by President Johnson. When I arrived at The Post there were two other black reporters there—two black males, Luther P. Jackson, Jr. and Wallace Terry. We were in a newsroom of several hundred white people. It is important to think about what the newspaper business is to get the true picture of the time. It is a very fast moving business. Putting out a daily newspaper back then in a news room is very different from today; of course, I mean the digital revolution has made things very different now. Back then, however, we wrote our stories on typewriters with four-ply paper. We didn’t go into the computer era until the 1970s—I would say maybe the mid-1970s when we started typing on computers. But “first black female” brings back memories of both the pain and pride of being the first. I must say that much of the pride comes mostly in retrospect. Actually being the first was a challenge. First of all just the business of getting to my assignments to cover them and to get back to the newspaper to cover write them on daily deadlines as I was trained to do carried an extra element of challenge. First of all, it was hard to get cabs; it seemed a million cabs would pass me by and not pick me up. I could be standing and waving in front of The Post or I could be in so many other parts of town but the attitude of most of the white taxi drivers was that a black person wants to go way out in far Southeast Washington and that is not where we want to go so we are not going to pick her up. So just one of the challenges was of course trying to meet daily deadlines and trying to get back and forth to the office to write my story after my assignment. But I took shorthand and sometimes wrote my stories in shorthand when I finally got picked up and that helped when I got back to work to compose and type my stories.

I am a minister’s daughter who was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and I grew up in a very racially segregated environment—all black schools until I spent a couple of years at a Catholic women’s college, Ursuline College. I had also graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. But this was actually my first exposure to working in a large group of white people—mostly men—in this highly competitive job situation. In addition to the challenges of just getting the story [End Page 224] in on time, I also knew that I couldn’t come back and complain because if I would have come back to the office late and constantly complained it was because cabs wouldn’t pick me up, that would have been an excuse not to hire another black woman. Some would say, “You can’t hire them because they can’t do the job because the cabs won’t pick them up.” Or some would say, “It’s not our fault that she didn’t make it but the reality is the times don’t make it possible.” So I had to hold a lot of things in and not share with my editors at the paper. That...