Nneka McGuire is a multiplatform editor at The Lily, The Washington Post website that focuses on the stories of women. Previously she worked at the Chicago Tribune.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam has witnessed an awful lot of human ugliness. In this, she is unexceptional: Gilliam was born black in the South in 1936. Here’s where she’s singular: In September 1961, Gilliam became the first black woman to land a reporter’s job at The Washington Post. Her memoir, “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America,” unspools what came before and after.
A preacher’s kid, Gilliam offers sweet recollections of her parents, depicting her childhood as faith-filled, pleasant and secure, despite periods of poverty and anguish. At age 14, she was riding in a car with her father when he had a fatal heart attack at age 51.
In her teenage years, Gilliam was taken by the idea of becoming a lawyer for children. But journalism was always a part of her life. Her father was an avid reader of the daily papers. As a youngster, Gilliam delivered a black weekly, the Louisville Defender, after school to earn spending money. And as a college freshman, she worked at the paper as a part-time secretary. When the society editor fell ill, she found herself — with no prior experience — writing stories to help out.
“A teenager living in the projects, I now had access to the Derby parties of the black elite,” Gilliam writes. “I saw Negroes who set their tables with fine china and lead crystal, serving the grandest meals and liquors, entertaining the way I had seen white people do in the movies or read about in books. Those experiences showed me that journalism was a key that could open a door to new worlds, and I wanted to enter them.”
She was hooked. She transferred to a college where she could major in journalism and went on to fill reporter posts at black weekly newspapers before graduating from the journalism program at Columbia University.
Gilliam is queen of the long game. At first Columbia rejected her, citing a lack of liberal arts credits. After earning the extra hours, she reapplied and was accepted. She showed similar resolve throughout her career. When she initially interviewed at The Post, she was passed over. An editor told her that the paper was interested in her but that she didn’t have enough daily experience. She demonstrated her chops by filing freelance articles to The Post from Africa during a summer work-project program that took her to several countries. On her return to the states, The Post hired her as a general-assignment reporter. Years into her tenure — again applying her determination — she asked to write a column for The Post, and after some patience and persistence she got it.
Breaking barriers can be bruising. Gilliam enumerates the indignities and injustices that black journalists faced in the newsroom and the world at large. As a reporter moving around the city, she found that cabs wouldn’t stop for her. Once she was assigned to write about the 100th birthday of a white woman living in an upscale highrise. “A black doorman in full uniform, including a plumed hat, looked at me coldly,” she writes. “ ‘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.’ ”
She explained why she was there and showed her Post ID. She eventually got in and wrote the story. “The elderly lady liked the story I produced,” she writes, “and graciously called The Washington Post to thank me the next day.”
Beyond her journalistic slights and successes, Gilliam charts watershed civil rights moments, such as the bloody strife over school integration, Freedom Rides, sit-ins and legal efforts to fight discrimination in the workplace. She unravels many details — sometimes so many that they are hard to track.
Still, as a chronicle of black history and advancement, “Trailblazer” is potent. As a memoir, less so. Gilliam seems reluctant to unshroud her intimate memories and emotions. Perhaps this is a function of her trade. Journalists are trained to report a story, rather than inhabit it, and to focus on facts, not feelings. Perhaps, as an industry veteran, Gilliam is conditioned to resist excavating her interior life in her storytelling. In the chapter on her 20-year marriage to artist Sam Gilliam, we only scratch the surface of their troubled relationship.
Gilliam also was apparently shy about revealing too much to her family.
“I had a husband who at times would be my greatest support, at others would require tremendous support from me, at times would be a person I could barely recognize, and at times be my greatest detractor. It is hard to describe the isolation that I felt,” she writes about the strain in her marriage. “I could not discuss the details with my mother. I was so close to her, and yet I had entered a new world that was so distant from her own experience.” She also noted that she didn’t readily divulge her personal problems to anyone else. “While we had close artist friends,” she writes, “there too I felt that I needed to save face.”
As a journalism role model, Gilliam has helped carve a path for many who followed her. During her stint as a Style editor at The Post, she recruited black writers and nurtured their talent. She co-founded the Institute for Journalism Education, which trained men and women of color and sought to change the depiction of minorities in the pages of newspapers. She served as president of the National Association of Black Journalists from 1993 to 1995, and later started a development program at The Post to help teenagers tell their stories and succeed in the media.
In 1962, Gilliam covered the integration of the University of Mississippi. Decades after James Meredith became the first black student to attend the university, she visited the campus again and asked a black student if he knew who Meredith was.
“No, I’ve never heard of him,” the student told her. When she described Meredith’s “heroic battle to gain entrance for himself and future black students,” Gilliam writes, the young man “respectfully turned the bill of his baseball cap around to the front and said, ‘I appreciate what he did.’ ”
I admit that as a black woman I didn’t know the name of Dorothy Butler Gilliam when I began working at The Post. Now that I do, I’m grateful — and damn lucky she came before me to blaze a trail.
By Dorothy Butler Gilliam
Center Street. 351 pp. $27