The Thrill (and the Heavy Emotional Burden) of Blazing a Trail for Black Women Journalists

Dorothy Butler Gilliam remembers how exciting it was to integrate The Washington Post, but also how lonely — and often attacked — she felt as the first black woman reporter in the newsroom.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam | an excerpt from Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America | Center Street | January 2019 | 17 minutes (4,927 words)

When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1961, the city, the entire country, and the African continent were all on the threshold of change. The dashing, young John F. Kennedy had just begun his presidency promising “a new frontier.” The Civil Rights Movement was kicking into high gear with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now urging young people like me to pursue professions we’d been excluded from and to excel. It was thrilling to be in the nation’s capital to begin my career as a daily newspaper journalist in the white press.

I brought a pretty placid nature to that career. When I later looked back, I surprised myself. I was so conservative politically! For example, only six years earlier, when I wrote about school integration in the student newspaper while attending Lincoln University from 1955 to 1957 (the Negro college in Missouri that provided higher education for colored students, allowing the state to keep all its other colleges and universities white), I indicated reasons we should go slowly with integration. But reporting for The Tri-State Defender in Memphis as the Civil Rights Movement dawned had begun to change me. The bus boycott victories had begun to liberate my thinking. And added confidence came from my faith, strengthened my spirit, and pushed me to do things that other people in my family didn’t do.

Just twenty-three years old, I was won over by the magnificence of official Washington’s buildings and even the romanticism of the streetcars that daily clanged past the U.S. Capitol and on which I could choose a seat anywhere I wished, unlike in the Deep South, where I was born and the segregation was debilitating. The train my family had taken when we moved from Memphis to Louisville, in 1941, had had segregated seating. I don’t recall much else about that train ride, but even though I was only five years old, it was apparent to me that train cars for colored people weren’t as nice as those for whites. My mother had prepared our food at home to eat on the train, since African Americans had no dining car and could not use the one for whites. Despite the unsegregated streetcars in Washington, I soon realized, with deep disappointment, that D.C. was a deeply divided, segregated, Southern town, not unlike Louisville and Memphis.

I was entering a new world — a complicated, fast-moving newsroom dominated by white men and where the sparse number of white women were mostly marooned on an island called For and About Women.

In late September 1961, I went to work at The Washington Post. As I entered the huge building at 1513-21 L Street N.W. on my first day, the memory of my Columbia University professor John Hohenberg, who had told me, “You’ve got so many handicaps, you’ll probably make it,” prompted a tiny roar inside me. He had been referring to my race and gender. My very person — separate from my abilities — could hamper my probability of success. I pushed aside that thought as I pressed the button for the fifth-floor newsroom. My initial nervousness made me feel a bit like a lone soldier about to face an army, or a fledgling swimmer getting ready to dive into an ocean where she would have to learn to swim while the waves roared relentlessly toward the shore. I tried to appear cool and calm as I walked into the newsroom. It was no time to ponder handicaps. I was entering a new world — a complicated, fast-moving newsroom dominated by white men and where the sparse number of white women were mostly marooned on an island called For and About Women, a section of the newspaper filled with social froth about rich white women like Perle Mesta, the famed Washington hostess.

I put on my game face, walked past desks with typewriters and strewn with newspapers, books, phones, and six-ply paper (typing paper with multiple carbon sheets for copies), past men and an occasional woman, and made my way to the City Desk — a long, dark-brown desk situated in the Metropolitan section. I spotted the city editor, Ben Gilbert, who had interviewed me at Columbia and been largely responsible for hiring me. I walked over, smiled, and extended my hand, which he took cordially. He introduced me to the assistant editors and showed me to my desk.

In graduate school, journalists in training said The Washington Post was run like the Democratic Party and The New York Times like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. This was because Washington was the world’s political power center and the editorial pages of The Washington Post were seen as liberal and civil libertarian but as arbitrarily managed as the Democratic Party. (Liberal in those days did not mean Blacks and women were well represented in the newspaper’s reporting and editing staffs.) The New York Times was in the nation’s financial and cultural capital and some of its journalists were our teachers at Columbia University, but in its internal management, The Times was as rife with intrigue and drama as the cantankerous labor union.

The Washington Post historian Chalmers Roberts called The Washington Post of that era internationalist and liberal. It started in 1877 as “a Democratic Daily” and changed hands five times before Eugene Meyer, a visionary Republican, purchased it at a bankruptcy sale in 1933. In 1954, The Washington Post acquired and merged with the rival Times-Herald in a financial and circulation triumph that solidified The Washington Post as the leading newspaper in Washington. Its staff in 1961 numbered more than 850 — including news-editorial, business, and production employees. As a business corporation, as well as a newspaper, it was on the upswing.

Ben and I had agreed that I would become a general assignment reporter as I simultaneously got my “sea legs” as a daily journalist. I had come to the newspaper with the same credentials as its white journalists, and I did not want to be stereotyped as qualified to cover only black stories. I thought it wise to be seen as a reporter who could handle any story I was assigned. I saw myself as one of the new-style, aggressive black Americans moving up in Washington and elsewhere and who represented the change in our people — not like the old-style conservative black appointees in government prepared to work for whites within the existing system of gradualism.

I immediately faced prejudice outside and inside the tension filled newsroom, as one of only three black journalists and the first African American woman. (Two African American men, Luther P. Jackson Jr. and Wallace H. Terry, were already there.) When I showed up to cover some stories, people often didn’t believe I was a reporter. One day, I was assigned to write about the one hundredth birthday of a white woman who lived in one of the high rise apartment buildings in a swank northwest section west of Rock Creek Park, a dividing line between black and white Washington. Wearing a proper professional dress with a skirt below the knees and medium heels, I walked briskly past manicured lawns to the front door.

A black doorman in full uniform, including a plumed hat, looked at me coldly. “The maid’s entrance is around the back,” he said.

“I’m not a maid,” I answered icily. “I’m a reporter for The Washington Post and here to do a story on a resident’s one hundredth birthday party.” I gave him the person’s name and showed my Washington Post ID.

He looked shocked, almost disbelieving, but went inside and spoke to the white desk clerk. After a few minutes, he returned to where he’d left me standing outside the door and reluctantly let me inside the ornate lobby. I walked toward the equally surprised desk clerk, who knew about the party and telephoned the resident’s apartment to let her know I was on my way up. The party-givers also looked surprised to see me. I ignored them as I did my reporting and left. The elderly lady liked the story I produced — which ran in the Metro section and not in For and About Women — and graciously called The Washington Post to thank me the next day. I felt gratified by her call, understanding that she was forced to see black Americans in a new and different way. Moments like that helped me deal with the many negatives I faced on a daily basis.

The inherent segregation of D.C. made it difficult even to travel back and forth to report stories…..  I would wave frantically for a taxicab, mostly driven by white men, but all would whiz past me.

Going into white neighborhoods often amounted to an invitation to be abused. My editors would assign me a story for the next day’s edition, and, like other reporters, I had only a few hours to get the story, return, and write it before deadline. The inherent segregation of D.C. made it difficult even to travel back and forth to report stories. Standing at the corner of 15th and L Streets a few steps from The Washington Post and six blocks from the White House, I would wave frantically for a taxicab, mostly driven by white men, but all would whiz past me. Some would slow down, until the drivers would see my dark-brown skin, when they would press down on their accelerators. By then, I would be fighting back tears, which occasionally broke through in my desperation, until one of those white male drivers would take mercy on me and finally stop. White taxi companies that worked downtown where The Washington Post was located didn’t hire black drivers.

When I eventually got to my assignment, I did my reporting, and I would again try to flag a cab to get back to the paper to type my story. As time passed, deadlines neared and no taxi stopped, I would start writing my stories out in my reporter’s notebook using the Gregg shorthand I had perfected at Ursuline College. I had been one of a group of the first eight African American girls invited to attend the Catholic women’s college, as the faculty acknowledged that segregation did not reflect the values of their Catholic faith. Secretarial jobs were a high-reach profession for colored women when I attended Ursuline from 1953 to 1955; the nuns had encouraged me to develop those skills in the welcoming environment of sisters, priests, and fellow students. Now, thanks to them, when I finally secured a cab and got back to The Washington Post newsroom, I could quickly transcribe the Gregg symbols, type the story at eighty words per minute, and try to meet my deadline.

On rare occasions, if time permitted, I would call for a Black owned Capitol Cab with a black driver to pick me up, especially if I was going into black neighborhoods far from downtown. Many black cabs worked only Negro neighborhoods, where they would be assured of passengers; black professionals working in downtown Washington were sparse in those days.

Because of segregation, I couldn’t eat in many restaurants in the city. At lunchtime, the only place I could be guaranteed admission was Sholl’s Colonial Cafeteria near The Washington Post. Some times Luther and I would go there because we knew we would be welcome and comfortable.

I never told my editors about these snubs and slights because race was not discussed in the workplace. I felt that complaining would just give the editors a reason not to hire another black woman. I feared they would say, “You can’t hire them because they can’t get the job done. Cabs won’t even pick them up. It’s not our fault she didn’t make it; the reality of the times just doesn’t make it possible.” It’s hard for those who never experienced life during legal or de facto segregation to imagine it. It’s difficult for me to think back to how I felt, not being able to eat in a restaurant of my choice, or taking twice as long to get back and forth to assignments because taxis wouldn’t pick me up.

One of the hardest problems for me was being ignored by white colleagues when I saw them on the street. White co-workers might speak to me inside the building but would act as if they didn’t know me if we passed on the street or outside the newsroom because they didn’t want to acknowledge me in front of other whites. The rejection hurt, and I resented that I had to use valuable creative energy masking my emotions. As an accomplished woman with a graduate degree to face such daily slights, I felt not only pained but “less than,” “inferior,” “not good enough” — not for what I did or did not do, but simply because of who I was. On the street, I tried to consciously avoid some people I worked with who had previously ignored me. I would jaywalk, risk being hit by a car, to avoid being humiliated. Inside The Washington Post, some white men, but not all, would let me exit the elevator first, as they did white women.


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My lot wasn’t as bad as that of my black male friends who were firsts in previously whites-only jobs. One told me white women who saw him on the elevator would refuse to enter it alone. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s only black staff person, E. Frederic Morrow, finally got a job in the White House, women entered his office only in pairs to avoid talk of sexual misconduct.

The newsroom was not always a safe harbor either. My first city editor, Ben Gilbert, was supportive of me, as were several others. However, not everyone in the newsroom had Ben’s progressive sense of racial justice. Luther reached out to me and helped me make connections, especially with other female reporters; some of whom were friendly and helpful and others less so. Luther, who specialized in housing and urban affairs, worked at The Washington Post from 1959 to 1963. He was the son of a college president, and in 1968, he became the first black faculty member at the Columbia Journalism School. I could talk to him about any problems I encountered in covering assignments, the racial slights, who might be a bigot, and the politics of the newsroom — such as who were considered the best writers or reporters and got the choice assignments.

Still, I was determined not to fail. I was fortunate to have landed a job at The Washington Post. It was my first experience working for a daily. I had, by then, worked for three black weekly publications, The Louisville Defender from 1953 to 1955, The Tri-State Defender in Memphis in 1957, and JET magazine in Chicago from late 1957 to mid-1959. However, it had been my ambition to be a daily newspaper journalist. That meant I would work for a white-owned publication. There was only one black daily newspaper in the country, The Atlanta Daily World, founded in 1932 by W. A. Scott. It was the first black daily in the U.S. in the twentieth century and the first successful black daily in all U.S. history. I respected The Atlanta Daily World, but I didn’t want to go back to live in the South. Like so many in my generation, I was feeling the push by Martin Luther King and other leaders to seek places in white corporations that had been closed to those before us. Even at that early stage in my career, I believed in diversity and wanted to bring a black female sensibility to events and stories that a reached a broad audience. Those were the goals of civil rights activism, and I knew my landing a job at a white daily was a step forward for black women. Many young Blacks were eyeing potential careers in white corporations, although racism (and sexism) permeated every American industry. Few women — and far fewer African Americans — held jobs in the daily press anywhere in the nation in 1961.

One of the hardest problems for me was being ignored by white colleagues when I saw them on the street…. The rejection hurt, and I resented that I had to use valuable creative energy masking my emotions.

Ben Gilbert wrote about the nation’s capital as I experienced it in an article published in The Washington Post in 1967: “[The history of Blacks in Washington] is a story of adversity and a little progress, accompanied by a shocking indifference and some hostility from the mass of whites.” Gilbert explained that any progress that had been made after Reconstruction was thwarted in the 1880s. “The segregation of government employment by race, begun at the turn of the century, became policy under Wilson, whose first wife was distressed to see Negroes and whites working together in the Post Office.” Gilbert credits Harold Ickes, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior, with laying “the public foundation of today’s integrated city by insisting that the facilities under his jurisdiction be used without discrimination.” As a result, in the era before civil rights laws were enacted and before affirmative-action policies were in place, Washington was unique in that some Blacks worked in low-level government jobs that created a level of economic security. Across the nation, few Blacks or women worked in white-collar jobs. Black women, generally forced into the marketplace to help support their families, often worked in jobs beneath their abilities. In the 1950s, relatively few white women worked outside the home.

The place of Blacks in American society was undergoing radical change when I started working at The Washington Post, and I wanted to be part of telling the story of trials, trauma, and, I hoped, transformation. If black men and women could risk their lives to break the chains of fear and second-class citizenship in the land of our birth, I could try to integrate the white media industry and bring a black female perspective that was missing from daily news papers.

In 1957 after my graduation from Lincoln University, which had been started by black soldiers decades earlier, I became a rookie reporter for The Tri-State Defender, and traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, after my boss, L. Alex Wilson, was brutally beaten when he covered the integration of Central High School. The black students would successfully integrate the all-white high school only after President Eisenhower reluctantly sent in federal troops to enforce the nation’s laws in accordance with the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. White Southerners were horrified when paratroopers formed a protective ring around the black children and walked them into the school, as soldiers stood at attention around the building. One white onlooker called this forced desegregation the darkest day in the South.

When my boss was severely beaten in Little Rock, the white mob didn’t know he was a reporter. They thought he was the parent of one of the children. L. Alex Wilson died prematurely about four years after he was attacked by the white mob in Little Rock, and his death made the hate and the violence of whites personal to me. It almost sickened me to my stomach that a misunderstanding by white parents could bring premature death to someone I knew. I felt helpless. I felt angry. By the time of my first days at The Washington Post, I had probably started to turn that anger inward, in what would be an ongoing issue in my life, depression. At The Washington Post, I often reported on tough subjects. Anger at injustice and melancholy were a normal part of the work. But the case of Mr. Wilson was an aberration; I was such a young reporter, just twenty. Working for him in Memphis at The Tri-State Defender was my first civil rights reporting experience. I was not a yeller and a screamer. I felt a kind of helplessness to make change at that point.

I had grown up in the Jim Crow system and felt deeply angered by it. I was also encouraged by the emerging action of brave people in the South. But I knew that breaking the hold of segregation would be difficult. I was also saddened by white Americans who hated and feared Blacks even when they did not know any. While I was being trained to be an objective reporter telling both sides of the story, I thought my work for mainstream media, shining light on the history, culture, and activities of Blacks, could help open-minded white people begin to know and understand African Americans and replace some of their fears with facts. Journalism was giving me tools to combat segregation by changing the attitudes of whites. If I could wield reporting and writing tools well, I would no longer be helpless and could channel my anger into powerful print.

*

The black press has been an important factor in America for almost two hundred years, since the first Black-owned newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was started in 1827 — nearly fifty years before slavery was abolished — with Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm as founding editors, declaring that they “wanted to plead our own cause.” They challenged bigotry in white newspapers, spoke out against slavery, and appealed to the country’s 500,000 freed Blacks.

In the years since, some five hundred black newspapers of varying importance began publication. Among the leading ones were The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, and The Atlanta Daily World. Black newspapers, most of them weeklies, have been an important vehicle for keeping African Americans informed, advocating for justice, and challenging the status quo, as they publicized pivotal events, such as the murder of Emmett Till.

Northern black papers that made their way to the South are even credited with fueling the Great Migration. In recent years, black papers’ numbers and influence have waned. I am grateful that I got my start in the black press and for the experience I gained, since the atmosphere within The Washington Post felt unwelcoming to me at times. The Washington Post was like a factory; it included not only the press room but also the production facilities where the paper was printed, and some African Americans worked on those lower floors. But the fifth floor, where reporters worked, was a world apart — with only three black reporters on a floor of whites. I felt isolated, but my emotional pain was light years removed from the experiences many young Negroes my age were having in the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

The excitement of the Kennedy era drew to Washington dynamic black trailblazers who had experience working as the lone Black in a white newsroom. I reached out to Carl Rowan, whom Kennedy appointed deputy assistant secretary of state in 1961. Rowan had been a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune a few years earlier, when, as he later wrote in his autobiography, “no more than five Blacks could claim to be general assignment reporters, and few were writing anything serious about the American social, political or economic scene.”

Rowan had covered the civil rights battles in the South, including the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision requiring school desegregation in Little Rock. He wrote so passionately on race relations that he became one of the nation’s most highly visible and vocal black men, and Kennedy tapped him to help integrate the State Department. Rowan would become a delegate to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis, ambassador to Finland in the Kennedy administration, and director of the United States Information Agency in the Johnson administration, which in 1964 made him the highest-ranking Black in American government.

Many years later, I discovered I had turned a lot of my anger inward in what became depression, and someone close to me at that time later told me, ‘you didn’t know how much bondage you were in at The Washington Post.’

Rowan and I sometimes spoke of Ted Poston who, as a reporter for The New York Post, a white-owned daily, had written riveting stories on the Little Rock Nine and other triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement. Poston had impressed me greatly when I was a rookie working at The Tri-State Defender and had met him briefly. Orrin Evans, who worked for The Philadelphia Bulletin, which ceased publication in 1982, and Thomas Johnson, who was the first black reporter at Newsday and later joined The New York Times, had been the examples that encouraged me and other Blacks to apply to the white-owned dailies.

The black women journalists I admired were in the African American press. I met Ethel I. Payne of The Chicago Defender, known as “first lady of the black press,” who was occupying what she called her box seat on history in Washington in the early 1960s. She had risen to prominence in a segregated America. While women in the white newspaper business often occupied inferior positions, the Negro press was less male dominated. For example, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells was a newspaper editor, and Era Bell Thompson was the editor of Ebony when I worked at JET.

Working with The Defender since 1951, Payne was its Washington correspondent and the second woman in the black press to be assigned to the White House press corps. I admired Alice Dunnigan, who was the first black woman to cover the White House. (Harry McAlpin had integrated the White House press corps in 1944 as a correspondent for the National Newspaper Publishers Association.) In 1948, Dunnigan, while working for the Associated Negro Press, had traveled with Truman, covering his presidential election campaign. One of my first forays from The Washington Post to seek out other black journalists was to the Keith-Albee Building, where JET magazine’s Washington bureau was located. The fast-growing news weekly had started a Washington bureau in 1956, and Simeon Booker, who had been The Washington Post‘s first African American hire, was named to head it. Simeon had left The Washington Post in 1953 after only a year and a half because he was “becoming neurotic.” He said “coldness and hostility replaced the support usually volunteered newcomers.” Outside the newsroom, Booker encountered questioning of his credentials, cab drivers who would not pick him up, the overtly racist chief of police who once physically threatened him, and a lack of welcoming eating places. Booker later said, “God knows I tried to succeed at The Washington Post. I struggled so hard that friends thought I was dying. I looked so fatigued after a year and a half, I had to give up. Trying to cover news in a city where even animal cemeteries were segregated overwhelmed me.”

I certainly understood what he meant. D.C.’s bias against black business was so great that White House aide Max Rabb had to intervene so JET could rent the space in the Keith-Albee Building.

The community of black journalists helped sustain me. I was fortunate to have already been mentored by Frank Stanley of The Louisville Defender and L. Alex Wilson, editor of The Tri State Defender, who was a veteran reporter of so much of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of the stories had not gotten wide attention from white society, but a lot of black Americans were paying attention. Wilson had opened the door for me to a very respected band of black reporters who shared what was a very dangerous beat in the South. This band included Clotye Murdock of Ebony magazine, Francis Mitchell and Mark Crawford at JET magazine, Simeon Booker and Larry Still of JET‘s Washington bureau, and many others. These black reporters were true trailblazers. JET published the picture of Emmett Till in an open casket, and it was one of the seminal moments, one of the horrifying events, that ignited the Civil Rights Movement. I learned so much when I lived in Chicago from 1957 to 1959 and worked for John H. Johnson, the founder and owner of JET and Ebony. I also began to connect with Blacks in Africa and think beyond the black experience in America when, through JET, I met and became friends with Tom Mboya, the charismatic Kenyan labor leader and freedom fighter.

But my dream was to work for a daily newspaper and I took seriously Dr. King’s urgings to young people to enter corporate America and make a difference. For the nearly one hundred years since Emancipation, Blacks had been so systematically and cruelly shut out from white corporations, that it took Dr. King’s soul stirring messaging to spark my faith that a career in daily news papers was even remotely possible for a Negro woman. There were few Negro or women examples, role models, or mentors I could look to in the white media. The black press had nurtured my talent early, then provided me opportunity and moved me quickly up the ranks. It was a risk to choose the path Dr. King helped my generation dare to dream, although my choice to work for a white daily was made a bit less difficult by the fact that The Atlanta Daily World was the only black daily, and, once I had moved North, to Chicago, I had resolved not to live in the segregated South again. But, the position at The Washington Post had not come with community.

I would sometimes experience panic attacks when I was walking to work, fearing what was happening at the office, what I would encounter there, who would not speak to me as I was walking from the bus stop. I would feel humiliated by not being acknowledged by my co-workers. I felt rejected, helpless about my situation. My colleagues hurt me, and the self-pity and resentment I felt were horrible. Many years later, I discovered I had turned a lot of my anger inward in what became depression, and someone close to me at that time later told me, “you didn’t know how much bondage you were in at The Washington Post.” I felt I was battling against enormous odds, odds I couldn’t conquer because it was a segregated city and a segregated world. Another black female reporter who came to The Washington Post much later, Jill Nelson, stayed only about three years and called her time there volunteer slavery.

What sustained me those first months and years in Washington and enabled me to stay the course and experience the gamut from endurance to enjoyment in thirty-three years at The Washington Post was the small group of journalists from the Negro press in the early years and the multiracial band of diversity warriors with whom I worked in later years.

* * *

Dorothy Butler Gilliam has been a journalist for more than six decades. In 1961, she became the first black woman reporter for the Washington Post. She would later become an editor and a columnist for the paper before retiring in 2003. Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly to nurture other journalists of color and to diversify newsrooms across the United States. Her work as a civil rights journalist has been featured in three documentaries: “Freedom’s Call,” “Southern Journalists Who Covered the Civil Rights Movement,” and “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and The Media.” During her career, Ms. Gilliam appeared regularly on television, including PBS, and hosted her own show on BET. She formerly served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists and of the Unity Journalists of Color.

From the book TRAILBLAZER by Dorothy Butler Gilliam. Copyright © 2018 by Dorothy Butler Gilliam. Reprinted by permission of Center Street, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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