Washington Post’s first black female reporter: Newsrooms still aren’t diverse enough | Perspective
Dorothy Butler Gilliam: When I first walked into The Washington Post newsroom in l961 as its first black female reporter, I felt like I was about to dive into a sea of white men while carrying two extra weights they didn’t have to carry.
When I first walked into the Washington Post newsroom in 1961 as its first black female reporter, I felt as if I were about to dive into a sea of white men while carrying two extra weights they didn’t have to carry. I had been forewarned by my Columbia University journalism professor: “You have so many handicaps,” he said, referring to my race and gender. (Though he went on to say, “you’ll probably make it," referring to the tenacity he saw in me as a student.)
HIs dire valedictory remark was ringing in my ears despite the din of the newsroom.
The nation’s capital was a very segregated city at that time and few African Americans worked downtown where the newspaper was located. When I went out to cover my assignments, I would stand for what felt like an eternity trying to hail a taxicab. Drivers would slow down, see my brown face, and hit their accelerators. Time is of the essence in daily newspapers and this further complicated my ability to get my stories. I’d have the same problem returning to the office. Fortunately, I had learned Gregg shorthand. I started writing my stories as I tried to hail a cab and when I finally returned to the office, I could make my deadline.
Colleagues with whom I had conversations in the newsroom pretended not to know me when they saw me on the street. I felt so humiliated, I would sometimes jaywalk across the street to avoid being ignored and once was almost hit by a car.
I felt lonely because white colleagues didn’t invite me to lunch. This was before the Public Accommodations Act was passed and most restaurants were segregated, meaning they did not serve blacks. Finally, my city editor assigned me a lunch buddy, a white woman who occasionally asked me to lunch. We ate at Scholl’s cafeteria, one of the few places where I could dine. She became an ally.
I remember feeling angry when a black doorman mistook me for a maid and told me to “go around to the maid’s entrance,” which, of course, I did not.
Although I felt frustrated daily, I didn’t share these problems with my editors, because I knew they could be used as an excuse not to hire another black woman. I persevered.
Eventually, I went on to spend 33 years at the Post as reporter, editor, columnist, and also a leader, with others, in the 50-year struggle to bring greater racial diversity to the nation’s newsrooms.
Why is this important, and especially important today? Because you can’t have a democratic society when all of the news is covered by one community. In 1968, after the urban uprisings in the wake of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a presidentially appointed commission partially blamed the media for the existence of two Americas — one black and one white — because less than 5 percent of the people newspapers employed were black. The commission said the news media informed the public only through “white eyes.”
Fifty years later, the Ford Foundation reported: “Yet today, America’s newsrooms still don’t reflect the country’s diversity” and “communities are not covered equitably.” Diversity and inclusion are as important today as they were in my early years because the nation is even more diverse now. Diversity and pluralism are America’s strength and critical to our ability to compete globally. The media have a great responsibility in helping the nation achieve diversity. I am continuing to work to increase diversity in newsrooms by serving as a role model and mentor and through my book Trailblazer.
After serving as the president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ); cofounder of the Maynard Institute, which has trained more than a thousand journalists of color and women in the last 40 years; and starting the first diversity program at the Post, I continue to encourage young black journalists. “Do not give up,” I tell them. “Work hard and smart. You can succeed despite the obstacles.”
And I challenge newsrooms to be more open to diverse ideas and to cover important issues in black communities -- for example, the massive incarceration of black men. Diversity among reporters produces more views from various communities and that can help increase public knowledge, awareness, and understanding.
To media-industry leaders across America, I say: “Don’t be afraid of the African American voice and creativity. Be an ally. Racial diversity in the newsroom benefits you — and the nation.”
Dorothy Butler Gilliam has been a journalist for more than six decades. She is the author of “Trailblazer: A Memoir by the First Black Woman Reporter at The Washington Post -- A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.” She will speak in Philadelphia at the African American Museum at 6 p.m. on Feb. 16. More information at https://pmnevents.philly.com.