When I first met Dorothy B. Gilliam, I was completely ignorant of this great woman in whose presence I sat. Knowing her as I do now, I believe she would have had it no other way. Her humble presence and warm demeanor is never overshadowed by her place in history as the first African American female full time reporter for the Washington Post and her unrelenting pursuit of truth in media, particularly as it relates to the African American community. To look at the honors and achievements of Dorothy B. Gilliam, one might assume she traveled a clear and linear road from development to success, paved with consecutive achievements along the way. But when asked if she ever imagined she would be living this kind of life when she was young, surprisingly the answer from this trailblazing journalist and author was "no."
As Dorothy recalls her early life she remembers being very verbal with a love for reading as a child, yet she didn’t really have role models that she wanted to emulate. The daughter of an AME minister, Dorothy was moved as a young child from Memphis Tennessee to Louisville Kentucky, and later to a more rural area in the state where she graduated from high school at the age of 16. “In those days if you were smart you’d skip a grade, so I graduated early.”
While studying at Ursuline College on scholarship, Dorothy discovered what would become her gift and passion for journalism while working at the Louisville Defender. “I wanted to see if this was an interest. I was able to write stories pretty early even though I went in as a secretary.” Then a seemingly chance opportunity opened for Dorothy when the “Society” editor became ill. “This minister’s daughter from a limited world suddenly going into the homes of people you’d never dreamed of… black middle class… a way to explore beyond the bounds of Louisville… .”
When it became time to pursue her education beyond Ursuline College, Dorothy applied to University of Missouri to focus on journalism. Although she was accepted, the university was not able to offer her any scholarships or financial help. She chose instead to attend Lincoln University Missouri where she had been offered scholarships. By then Dorothy had the desire to work for a daily newspaper, but received a number of rejections. Upon graduating in 1957 she went to work for the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. Although not a daily publication, the Tri-State Defender was where she learned the journalism fundamentals and had the opportunity to cover the Little Rock Nine.
Only a few short months after joining the Tri-State Defender, Dorothy was heading for Chicago to work for Johnson Publishing Company, an opportunity that came about through connections she’d made while in Little Rock. Writing for Jet and Ebony magazines was a great honor, yet it was a time that would test her mettle and fortitude. Dorothy vividly recalls some of the harsh criticism from her editor. “ 'You write like you have concrete in your fingers'…you just go into the bathroom and find a stall and cry… I did center spreads, exploring new worlds, getting off track, getting back on track. It had to be God’s protection and care.” While her time in Chicago gave her great experience, Dorothy still had the dream of working for a daily paper.
Soon thereafter Dorothy applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, but was rejected on the basis that she didn’t have enough liberal arts hours from her time at Lincoln. Many years later she would learn that the man who did her pre-interview was clear to note in her file that she was a “very dark-skinned woman.” After a friend from Ebony magazine assisted her in getting those liberal arts hours, she reapplied and was accepted. Dorothy’s time at Columbia was not without challenges. “Between working, saving, scholarships, and everything else… steps along the way and people who helped.”
The challenges that met her at Columbia were not only financial. Dorothy was one of only two blacks (the other a black male) and fifteen women in her class. “Growing up in an all black world and always hearing 'you can, you can,' but when you hit the reality… other students with such broad experience, trips to Europe for summer vacations, children of publishers, Jackie Kennedy’s half-sister was in the class, I just couldn’t compete with their nuanced knowledge, their life experience… .” Yet God would send Dorothy well-placed allies like the Jewish woman from New York that befriended her and helped her in so many ways, and her professor who told her, “You have so many disadvantages, you might make it.”
Never losing sight of her dream of working for a daily paper, Dorothy interviewed with the city editor from the Washington Post just prior to graduating from Columbia. Although they were really interested in her, they felt she needed more experience. The city editor did however extend an invitation to her that would ultimately prove to be pivotal to her career. He told her if she was ever in D.C. she should stop by and meet the managing editor. As divine providence would have it, Dorothy was headed to Kenya shortly after graduation with an organization that was holding its orientation in Washington D.C. The nature of her trip, with its focus on completing work projects and developing relationships with Africans their age, aroused the interest of the managing editor. He asked her to write a few stories while she was abroad, which she did, and there began Dorothy’s relationship with the Washington Post.
Don’t miss part two of this feature of Dorothy B. Gilliam where she talks about life for her at the Washington Post, her perspective on the opportunities and challenges for blacks in media, and how she is preparing young African-American students to meet those opportunities and challenges through Prime Movers Media.