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'Trailblazer:' New Book Explores One African-American Journalist's Pioneering Journey

MARK BRODIE: When Dorothy Butler Gilliam first walked into the newsroom at the Washington Post in 1961. She was one of the few women and the first African-American woman to ever be hired as a reporter there. Washington, D.C., was still segregated at the time. There wasn't even a restaurant near the newsroom where she, as an African-American, was allowed to eat. But Gilliam kept going. And now she's out with a new book called “ Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make Media Look More Like America,” in which she documents that five decade long fight. Our co-host, Lauren Gilger, spoke with her more about it and how it felt to walk into the Washington Post newsroom on that first day.

DOROTHY BUTLER GILLIAM: It was really like diving into a sea of white men carrying two invisible weights that they didn't carry. One was race and one was gender.

LAUREN GILGER: So, tell us, what did you face? I mean, there must have been challenge after challenge. Can you give us an example or two?

BUTLER GILLIAM: Sure. One of the things I faced was that Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, was a very, very segregated city. So, when I went out to cover my stories I couldn't get taxicabs to stop for me to take me to my assignments. The other challenge I faced was as the first African-American woman, the editors would often say insensitive things. Not all the editors, but particularly one or two, they would say, “Well, we don't cover black murders because those are cheap murders,” and, other words, my humanity was less important than his humanity. The other challenge I faced was people when I went out to interview them, they didn't believe that I was a Washington Post reporter. I went to the home of one elderly woman having her 100th birthday, which was a big deal back in 1961. And when I got to the front door the doorman told me the maid’s entrance was in the back. And I very nicely told him, “I'm not a maid, I'm a reporter for the Washington Post.” And he had to go in and talk to the guy at the desk. And then he called upstairs, and they came back, and, you know, those kinds of things just happened so often that it was very challenging.

GILGER: Did it ever feel like too much? Did you ever just want to go do something that was easier?

BUTLER GILLIAM: It felt difficult but I knew that I had to succeed because if I had given up, it was going to be twice as hard for the next black woman to be hired. And I did not come back to the office and discuss the issues I was facing because I knew that if I did that too it would be used against the potential hiring of another black woman. You know, I really kind of had to be, blazed a trail for somebody not just for me but for those who would come after me. I knew, you know, having grown up in the segregated South, having known how significant it was to integrate these large corporations. But also had been brought up to know that as African-Americans we really had to also reach back and bring another with us.

GILGER: You've done that throughout your career, and especially it sounds like now brought along others who can follow in your footsteps. How have you seen a change in mainstream media and the broader society as well? Do you think we've come as far as you'd like?

BUTLER GILLIAM: I don't think we have come as far as I would like. No. I think we have made progress certainly in terms of increasing the number of black women and men and other people of color. But in recent times there seems to be a backward movement. For example, in many newsrooms, they did not even respond to the American Society of News Editors query as to what was the percentage of people of color in their newsroom. And part of that is because the news industry as you know has been through some very dramatic changes in the last 20 years. Newspapers are shrinking in many ways and the percentage of people of color has been dropping.

GILGER: I want to talk about the importance of that, like in terms of the stories that you've covered throughout your career and bringing your own perspective to them. In journalism, we're supposed to be unbiased, we don't have a point of view on things. But obviously it matters that we have diversity in our newsrooms. Why do you think that is?

BUTLER GILLIAM: It's so important to have diversity in the newsroom because you just bring different perspectives. The news media was slapped very resoundingly by a presidentially appointed commission back in the late 1960s. In 1967, it was called the Kerner Commission, right after the urban rebellions or the riots of the ‘60s. That commission said the media was in part to blame for the fact that there were all these urban uprisings, and, in part, because the media was not integrated. Because only at that point they said 5 percent of all the editors and writers on newspapers throughout the country were black. So, you have this situation according to this presidents reappointed commission, saying that the media was in part responsible for what happened because they had not been adequately reporting on what was going on in the black community, the issues, the pressures the poverty. All of these issues have not really been adequately reported and so they were seeing the world only through white eyes. So, that to me was a dramatic way of talking about the responsibility of the media to really reflect the full community. You can't have an accurate representation of what's going on if you don't have diversity. That doesn't mean that your perspective is a biased one. It just means that you're going into areas that are not always covered. Our responsibility as journalists is to try to bring as many different perspectives as we can into what we publish.

MARK BRODIE: That was Dorothy Butler Gilliam speaking with our co-host, Lauren Gilger. Gilliam was the first African-American woman ever to be hired as a reporter for the Washington Post. She's the author of the new book “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make Media Look More Like America.”

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.