She's a journalism pioneer who broke barriers and paved the way for future generations. Dorothy Butler Gilliam was the first African American female reporter at the Washington Post. Her stories helped give a voice to communities that were often overlooked.
“As a first, I had to open the doors for others who would be following,” said Dorothy Butler Gilliam, former Washington Post reporter. Gilliam joined the Washington Post in 1961. At the time the paper was male-dominated and, like the nation as a whole, mostly segregated. Gilliam recalled facing unexpected challenges while trying to do her job.
“Because of these outside factors that I had no control over such as the fact that white cab drivers wouldn't pick up a black woman," she said. Despite obstacles, Gilliam was driven to succeed. She relied on her skills such as short-hand to finish assignments on-time. Gilliam believed missing deadline would only make it harder for any women or minorities who followed. As the 1960's civil rights movement and women's movement made headlines, Gilliam's articles played a critical role in informing readers. She covered historic events including the integration of Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas and the University of Mississippi. "Few white reporters at that time were going into the black community to say ‘What do you all think? What are your opinions of what’s happening at Ole Miss?’" In her memoir called "Trailblazer", Gilliam wrote of her experiences including her efforts to promote diversity in the newsroom. "The way journalism works it is important that we have all people represented around the table," said Gilliam. In addition to her work in journalism, Gilliam also co-founded the Maynard Institute in Washington D.C. The organization works to improve media coverage by making sure newsrooms reflect the communities they serve.
Cathy Trost is the executive director of the Freedom Forum Institute at the Newseum in Washington D.C. Trost said while Gilliam and other women broke barriers decades ago there's still room for progress. “It’s been clear that we need more women and diversity in leadership,” said Trost. “Because tone gets set at the top and decisions get made at the top about the expectations you are communicating about your values in the newsroom.” Trost said the Newseum programs and exhibits highlight the rise of female journalists and their vital role in the media. She hopes increasing awareness of the history, the struggles and accomplishments will lead to more positive changes.
“We've been hearing that message for 30, 40 years even before Dorothy Gilliam,” said Trost. “It's time now to stand up and make a change.”
Gilliam said being the first wasn't easy. But after nearly 60 years in the news business, she said she is proud to see more females and journalists of color taking on tough assignments from the city hall to the White House press room. “Reporters who are being singled out and denigrated. I want to let them know their effort is appreciated," Gilliam said.