When Dorothy Gilliam started out as a journalist, her colleagues would ignore her on the street, cabs wouldn’t pick her up and restaurants would often refuse her service. And her editor wouldn’t have anyone cover the murder of someone who looked like her. He would call them “cheap murders.”
“It was a unique time in America,” Gilliam said.
Now, decades later, she is an accomplished journalist, helping to mold the next generation of young reporters.
Gilliam will receive the Lifetime Achievement award this month from the Washington Press Club Foundation for her significant impact on women in journalism. She was the first black, female, full-time reporter hired by the Washington Post, and she now serves as the director of the Prime Movers Program, which sends veteran journalists and university interns to mentor high school students in media classes in D.C. and Philadelphia.
“I was really humbled by [the award] because I know that everything I’ve been able to do has been a team effort,” Gilliam said in an interview with The Hatchet. “It’s interesting because you don’t really think about that when you’re doing it, especially when you’re just in those early days.”
Her journalism career launched when racism was rampant throughout America. Starting at the Post in 1961, she said the treatment she received around the city made it difficult for her to meet her deadlines.
“People would pretend they wouldn’t know you if they saw you on the street, colleagues I mean, and the crotchety, old editor who still called black deaths ‘cheap murders,’ so you didn’t have to cover them,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam worked at the Post a total of 33 years over a 41-year span, taking time off at points to raise her children. Gilliam returned to the field in 1972 and found the rise of feminism and diversity in the workplace gave her greater advantages than ever before.
“You can be a good reporter, but you need the diversity on the staff to help produce a product that really reflects the communities they’re trying to serve,” Gilliam said.
Gilliam’s interest in fostering young journalists started in 1997 when she said she learned that not a single school in the District had published a high school newspaper.
“I had been running around the country, juggling my career, trying to get more journalists in the media. And here in Washington, there was nothing being produced, making it impossible to get any of them to aspire to work on newspapers,” she said.
The Post agreed, and allowed Gilliam to start the Young Journalist Development Program, which sent Washington Post reporters into area high schools to help the students create or revitalize their high school newspapers. Gilliam said this program was a great win for both students and the journalists, and the teachers appreciated it.
In 2003, Gilliam retired from the Post and spent the year developing and getting funding for the Prime Movers Program, which kicked off in 2004 and recently expanded to Philadelphia.
“I thought the journalists would enjoy coming out of their offices for a month and interacting with high school students, and they really enjoyed that,” she said.
Despite the gloomy outlook for print journalism, Gilliam said the craft will remain a key aspect to democracy.
“I think that those of us who still love journalism, and who see it has a sacred trust as I do, really are worried about what the future is going to be,” Gilliam said. “But, I have confidence that the nation will come to see and understand how crucial journalism is to democracy.”