I am a diehard history buff especially when I come upon those tales of unsung pioneers in African-American culture. I hang on every word. I savor every chapter. Most of all, I thank the Creator for giving them their gifts, the courage and the persevering spirit to challenge the winds of racism and prejudice that they faced. Sometimes, somehow, there those who inexplicably found a way to overcome. But for others, many others in fact, the final leg of their journey would be wrought with disappointment, failure, pain — even death.
Thus, you can imagine my excitement when I was provided with the opportunity to sit at the feet of a trailblazing journalist, Dorothy Butler Gilliam, who joined the editorial staff of The Washington Post in 1961 to become the first Black woman reporter in the publication’s history.
Now in her 80s, she took us down Memory Lane, sitting with regal splendor, sporting carefully-coiffed gray hair and displaying the wit and insight upon which she undoubtedly relied again and again once upon a time, given the world of white male dominance which sought to chew her up and swallow her whole after she’d broken through the formidable walls of race and gender at The Post.
As familiar as I am with the towering barriers, padlocked doorways and horrific conditions our ancestors have long faced since being kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as slaves 400 years ago, Gilliam’s reflections were painful to hear, difficult to swallow and at times, impossible to imagine. She shared the words from one of her professors at Columbia University who told her as she began her Post career, “You’ve got so many handicaps, you’ll probably make it,” referring, as she told us, to both her race and gender.
She ate her lunches alone, rode once-filled elevators that quickly emptied when she dared to enter and join her white colleagues, was given assignments that no one else wanted, was treated more like a pariah than a human being and walked in solitude when cab drivers passed her by, forcing her to brave the elements while in route to cover stories around the District. These humiliations didn’t shock me as I too have been forced to endure similar situations during my life — a Black man-child born in the midst of the Civil Rights Era.
Then, she talked about her travels to the Deep South where Black reporters had to conceal their typewriters, pretending to be preachers and sleeping in funeral homes to avoid being detected as journalists before being harangued, beaten or killed by white supremacists.
Black reporters, she reminded us, knew that to tell the truth about racism in America required the willingness to enter dangerous waters and to face the possibility of death on behalf of our communities, our race and to make a way for those who would follow us in the future. As much as I savor being a writer — a reporter for the Black Press — I wondered if I could have faced such “slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.”
The sacrifices made by Martin, Malcolm and Medgar allowed me opportunities that those from their own generation could have never deemed possible. I would be allowed to travel paths that Blacks before me had been denied. In gratitude, I have done everything within my power to do the same for Black boys and girls who have followed in my footsteps.
My children, who sometimes mistakenly believe that they’re “entitled” until I remind them otherwise, have been afforded access to a world that at times, morphs into something more reminiscent of The Jetsons than The Jeffersons. But when humility threatens to yield the way for hubris, I remind myself, and reiterate the truth with my children and two young grandsons, that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. Some of their names and their sacrifices may never be known to us but we stand, nonetheless, because they were willing to crawl, to hop on one leg or to walk with cumbersome weights tied upon their backs.
When I grow up, I want to be like Dorothy Butler Gilliam.