Dorothy Butler Gilliam Tells Her Trailblazing Story

Dorothy Butler Gilliam has lived to be a sage octogenarian. She has also lived a remarkable life: daughter of the segregated South, front-line chronicler of the dismantling of Jim Crow and ascension of the civil rights movement and most of all, “Trailblazer,” the title of her memoir.

Indeed, Gilliam in 1961 became the first Black woman journalist at the Washington Post, joining two African-American men, Luther P. Jackson, Jr. and Wallace Terry.

The value of Gilliam’s memoir is that it is written from an African-American woman’s perspective. She paints searing pictures of early 1960s racially-segregated District of Columbia. I’ve read good accounts by David Brinkley and Stewart Alsop, yet Gilliam’s brims with soul.

For 20ish Millennials or 40ish Gen-Xers, these pictures of Washington could seem surreal. The District couldn’t have been that way, right? Baby Boomers, who are now 60- or 70ish, retired or about to retire, remember the oppressive Washington of their youth, the “Chocolate City” that lacked home rule and was treated sadistically by openly-racist Southern U.S. Senators who usually were tasked to mismanage the budgets.

Dorothy Butler was a 23-year-old single woman when she began working at the Post. She endured taxi drivers who refused to pick her up, which meant she was perilously close to missing reporting assignments and blowing writing deadlines. Restaurants were segregated, and she was limited to eat a particular cafeteria where she sometimes dined with a white female colleague or Luther Jackson. White male co-workers, she said, would acknowledge her in the office, but not on the street. That courtesy would have offended other whites.

D.C. was so segregated before the mid-1960s civil rights laws, even the district’s pet cemeteries were segregated, Simeon Booker, the Washington Post’s first Black journalist, told Gilliam. Booker, 99, worked briefly at the Post in the 1950s then had a remarkable five-decade career as Ebony/Jet’s Washington editor, publishing his memoirs a few years before his death in 2017.

There is no hint of complaint in Gilliam’s “Trailblazer.” In fact, she calmly recounts the racism she and other Blacks endured. However, she had reason to feel fear or rage, like in 1957 when she traveled to Little Rock to cover the desegregation of Central High School. Butler, then 20, was ordered by her editor, the Tri-State Defender’s L. Alexis Wilson, to stay behind in Memphis because the assignment was too dangerous. Indeed. The editor had been beaten and stoned by a white mob, yet he refused to run. The Marine defiantly walked away. Butler went to Little Rock to finish the reporting.

After a year of reporting at the Post, Butler was dispatched to Oxford, Mississippi in 1962 to cover James Meredith’s effort to desegregate “Ole Miss,” the University of Mississippi. Butler interviewed Black service workers whose voices were rarely heard in white daily newspapers.

During Butler’s early years at the Post she covered so-called serious news; she was not a journalist toiling in the women’s pages, aka features, which existed until 1969.

She married Sam Gilliam, Jr., a fine artist, in 1962 and after starting a family she left the paper. Nearly a decade later she was encouraged to return to the Post. Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and his team hired Gilliam as an assistant editor for Style, the former women’s pages, transformed into an edgy features section about women and men, suburbanites and city dwellers.

Gilliam saw an opportunity: “I knew the vast and complex Black cultural world,” she wrote in her memoir, “which was unknown to white readers, was largely missing from the section and I longed to help unveil what some called a secret world and make the marvelous culture of Black America better known and understood by all races.”

Gilliam’s platform expanded when she became a columnist. Ever the changemaker, Gilliam co-founded the Institute for Journalism Education, a training ground for hundreds of women and men of color who entered mainstream journalism in the last quarter of the 20th century and early part of this one.

When she retired from the Post at the end of the century she did not retire from empowering others. George Washington University supported her Prime Movers Media Program that promoted media training for high school students.

“Trailblazer” is an essential read about the lives of mainstream media Black journalists, told by an earnest and elegant revolutionary who led the charge.

Dawkins, author of “Rugged Waters: Black Journalists,” is an associate professor at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.

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