[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: One of the questions I had about the period when you were in Louisville and you were in school and Adee [Butler, Jr.] was in school, how did having a younger sister [Juanita] who was retarded affect your lives? Who took care of her? If you could talk a bit about that.
Gilliam: The bottom line was that there was never any question in my family about sending her away to an institution. There were state institutions at that time where people who had problems like that, who were mentally retarded, could have gone, but there was never any question about that. For a long time I think there was some denial of the depth of her illness. I shouldn't say her illness; I should say her condition. First of all, I would now say that Juanita topped out at about a six-year-old level of functioning. Comparatively speaking, I think that may have been considered relatively high. Some people were not able to do that much. So Juanita had always been included.
For many years she went to regular school, which was just very strange and very difficult, because I was not the person who ended up taking her. My younger brother [Lynwood], because they were close in age, as well—it was as though Adee and I were together, and then Lynwood and Juanita were together. I can remember at one point she was trying to go to regular school, and my younger brother was taking her.
I think the thing about that—and I'll talk some more to my sister about some of the specifics of that when I go home, but I think the thing about that is that schools were places that kind of absorbed certain people, and there was a whole range of functioning. Especially in our elementary school, which was close to home—and I don't consciously remember her in elementary school, but I know that there was very definitely a period when she was going to school. There was sort of an ability to absorb them because if you couldn't keep up, I mean, some people were sort of considered slow, and it was like degrees of slowness. So she did have, for a time, a fairly normal life as much as possible.
The other aspect of that was that she was always very accepted at church. She was Reverend Butler's daughter, and everybody knew there was "something wrong" with her, but she was kind of embraced and taken care of. Her condition was overlooked, you know, in the highest sense of the word. She was really treated in kind of a special way almost because of that. She went to Sunday school and church, and she reads to a limited degree, even now. Today she works in a sheltered workshop, and she lives with my older sister [Evelyn], who takes care of her.
The other real strong factor in her upbringing was her relationship with my mother. She and my mother were just so, so close. I think so many things she learned to do, she was taught by my mother—her reading. My mother treated her very much kind of like a "normal" person, and she just took the kind of special care of her that I guess one would expect from a mother, and it's probably a pattern with mothers and children who they know will be with them for much of their life.
How did it impact me? How did it impact Adee? When I say she went to regular school, she didn't move ahead the way we did. She was just there, but slower. I don't recall having a lot of responsibility for her, although I'm sure that in some ways I did. My strong memory is that Mother did much of what had to be done, and she was determined to kind of include her, and because of the community we lived in and the ways the school kind of absorbed people, at least kind of tolerated a range of functioning, her sort of special treatment at church. For years and years and years, she sang in the choir. She would almost be kind of pandered to in some ways in our church. A few years ago she talked about singing, being asked to sing a solo at church. So there's been always this effort to reach out and include her, in fact so much that she was treated quite specially.
Since my mother died in 1979 and she's been with my sister, I don't think Juanita's life has been quite as happy, because she does not have the same really special relationship with my sister that she has with my mother. With my sister, it's more she takes good care of her, takes her to work and picks her up and does for her what she needs, but without that same mother's love. So there isn't as much communication and stuff. Mother would have conversations. I mean, there would be so many levels on which they connected.
In many ways, I connect more with my sister now in an emotional sense, I think, than my older sister does, but, of course, I don't have the responsibility for her, so it's very easy for me to fly in for three days at Christmas and have that relationship. This past summer, my sister [Evelyn] asked me if I would take care of her for a week because she [Evelyn] wanted to go to Florida with the church. So Juanita came up and spent a week with me. We have very good times because it takes me back. It brings out the child in me, because we end up—we'll sing songs. That's the level at which she functions, but at the same time she's a very loving, loving, loving person, because she's been very loved.
I'm trying to remember if, as a child, I felt ashamed of her, and I just don't have a lot of conscious memories of that. My memory of her was when we moved back to Louisville from the country, in terms of her being taken to school. My memory was that my mother sent her to school with my brother. So for quite a while we were trying to put her in regular school, and it finally became clear that that was just not the best situation for her.
Mother was able to find this sheltered workshop in which she's worked now for I guess more than twenty years. They do very routine things like stuff baskets, I guess, for maybe some of the fast-food shops, or they'll stuff plastic forks and spoons and napkins in a bag, or they'll pack things. But it just makes her feel very important and very necessary, and she talks about, "Well, Dorothy, I made $15 last week. My sister was really happy about all the money I made." It's that level of functioning. But I think basically she feels very good about herself, which, as I say, I really just attribute to the love of my family and this continuing absorbing of this responsibility on the part of my older sister.
Once again I think of the age thing, because Juanita probably—the mentally retarded are treated so differently now, and it may well have been that she had the potential for having a little more freedom, but in another sense I suspect that really isn't true.
Moorhus: You said yesterday that she had Down's Syndrome.
Moorhus: So it was not a problem with her birth; it is genetic or a pre-birth condition?
Gilliam: That is my assumption. Certainly she was born with that. But as you know, there are different levels of mental retardation.
Moorhus: But she gets around? She's able to take care of herself?
Moorhus: You said she does read, even at a minimalist level.
Gilliam: Yes. Exactly. Minimalist level. Yes. Does that seem to be at odds with your understanding of Down's Syndrome?
Moorhus: No. I was just trying to be clear about all of that.
That's good. What about your relationship with Adee and, as you were growing up, your relationship with your older sister Evelyn? When did Evelyn leave the household? What kind of an impact did that have on the rest of you in the family?
Gilliam: When we were really young and my father was alive, our relationship was, I think, the typical brother-sister—you know, brother teasing the sister. I think I mentioned the little cat escapade. Adee, in many ways we look back now and we say that he never had a childhood, but then I don't think I had much of a childhood either. But I think in a way, the cutting-off of his childhood was more pronounced, because Adee, it seems to me, always worked. When he was eight or nine, this is when we were still living in the parsonage on Sixteenth Street, he worked with the ice man. These were days before we had refrigerators. He helped to sell ice. Any odd job in the neighborhood that he could get, he did it.
These were also the days when, when we worked, we brought our money home and helped the family. That's how tight things were. So Adee, as a little boy, I remember his always working. My work was doing a little babysitting and then selling newspapers, so mine was very minimal, but I'm sure it ended up being enough for allowance, although I don't remember us getting allowance. [Laughter.] I think whatever we had was kind of put into the family pot.
So as my father got increasingly ill, then Adee took on more and more responsibility, and so that kind of elimination of a childhood sped up.
Moorhus: Was that because he was a boy? [Pause.] Your sister Evelyn was still in the household at this point, wasn't she?
Moorhus: And she was considerably older, and yet the responsibility fell to Adee, is that correct?
Gilliam: Well, no. Evelyn worked as well. When we arrived in Louisville, I had just turned five and Adee was six. Evelyn was seventeen. She was at that point probably a senior in high school. So after she graduated from high school, there was the question of what she would do next. Now, you come from a family where the father has finished college and my mother had finished two years of college, and so one would expect that she would go to college. Meanwhile, Theo was ill, but was in the family. But Evelyn always had a very bad stutter. She has improved in recent years, but interestingly enough, Evelyn stuttered, Adee stuttered. I think part of the reason I sort of stood out was the fact that I had no stutter, but both of them stuttered a great deal.
So one of the things with Evelyn was going to be what she really was going to do, so she went to the local black college for a while, called Louisville Municipal College, but my impression from my perch way down here was that that was a real factor in her doing well academically. She was very bright, but her expression was limited, and she was very embarrassed by it. She also had the family plague of overeating and overweight, which didn't have to be a factor at all in her going to college, but she ended up going to a trade school, a vocational trade school, and got a degree in tailoring. So she was a very fine tailor.
Our relationship has been very, very kind of funny. We have become really closer in recent years since my mother died. When my father became ill and our family moved to the country, Evelyn took a job as a domestic and stayed in the home of these people for whom she worked. I'm trying to remember if at that point she already had her tailoring degree, and I think she would have. Quite a bit of time would have passed, because by then I was fourteen. That had been a nine-year period. Why she did that instead of working as a tailor at that point, I don't know.
Moorhus: Had she lived with your family until you moved to the country?
Gilliam: Oh, yes. Yes, except for being away in school, because the school she went away to was in Paducah, Kentucky. So she moved away to attend vocational school. I believe that was a two-year program.
So we were not particularly close. I mean, it was the gap in years. We became closer as I became a young adult, because we lived for a while in Chicago together, but over the years—if you want me to talk a little bit about her life, I can do that.
Moorhus: If this is a good time, sure.
Gilliam: Yes. I'm trying to see how it fits into the high school years.
Moorhus: Maybe we'll come back to her when we get you to Chicago.
Gilliam: Yes, I think that will make more sense.
Moorhus: But you mentioned the death of Theo, which happened while you were in Louisville. During this period, had she been at home or in and out of sanitariums?
Gilliam: She had been in and out of sanitariums.
Moorhus: So there were a lot of things going on in your early years in Louisville—a sister that was in and out of the institution, Evelyn finishing high school and where she was going to go away to school or what she was going to do, and how your younger siblings were being taken care of, and your father was building a church. A lot of things going on in that period.
Gilliam: Absolutely. Absolutely. I guess sort of the anchor was the strength of my mother and father. Then as my father became ill, it more and more fell on my mother. Then, of course, that's when the children were—we stepped in to do various things. I felt I was always kind of protected in the sense of not being expected to do a lot in those early years, whereas I felt that Adee was kind of expected to do certain things. I mean, he was the oldest boy, and he was expected to behave like somebody probably older than he was. I always felt somewhat protected
from that. I had chores at the house to do. I remember I had to wash dishes, and that was more of my contribution.
We had a very organized household, in a sense, which made all these things work very well. When you sort of have the absence of a lot of conflict at one level, when you have a family that's motivated by a strong belief in God and the kind of calm and peace and fortitude those kind of beliefs bring, it apparently made my parents able to deal with a lot of things that were going on. I can remember a lot of things that seemed to be—my younger brother [Lynwood] always seemed to be having so many things happen to him. One time we were on the front porch and he was out there in a buggy, and Juanita was apparently trying to roll him or something, and she actually rolled him off the porch. I remember that I do believe he broke a leg. Another thing I remember happening to my younger brother is being hit by a car, and he must have been—Lynwood was no more than—I don't know, he was under six. All that sort of happened out on that street where we lived.
The neighborhood was very interesting—California. One portion of a block was the church and the parsonage. Not the whole block, but from the corner of the alley to the end of the street was the parsonage, the old church, and then the new church. On the other side of the alley was a family called the Greshams, where it was a mother and father and, I think, nine children, and they were living in the alley. That was a time when people lived in alleys. They were not as church-going as our family was, but one of their daughters was my best friend—Ann. The boys would come over and do all the things that boys did. But it was a neighborhood where everybody played together and were together, and people played in front of their houses. In the forties there were still wagons and people selling ice. When I think about those days and those times, with all that was going on in the house, there was sort of, I guess, a peace and orderliness about it. I mean, school and church on Sunday, then church activities such as on Sunday evenings we had Adult Christian Education League, where young people would come together.
I remember also that my mother decided that I needed piano lessons. I don't know whether it was my mother or my father. There was this woman, this old lady in the neighborhood, a little short, kind of shriveled woman, named—I think her name was Miss Thompson. She was teaching me piano, but we didn't have a piano, so I had to take the piano lessons in the basement of the church. Not only was she one of these teachers that would rap your fingers with a ruler when you made mistakes, I had to go and practice my piano lessons in the basement by myself. Of course, that was the most frightening thing in the world for a nine-year-old, you know, to be down in a church basement, because the memory of every single funeral that had ever been held was just running through my head. I mean, I never ever became much of a piano player. Even today I can do some basic kind of things and have fun on the piano if I can do things in the key of C. [Laughter.] But the church was just such a part of our lives that we were expected to go and use the basement piano to practice and learn to play the piano.
You mentioned holidays. Holidays were really, really fun times. Once again, very, very little money, but my mother always managed to sort of work miracles with money. She would get these little dolls and make sure that we all had something for Christmas. My brother and I, our game was to find the presents before Christmas, and we found them. We'd end up playing with them, and we were just so bad! [Laughter.] You wouldn't totally play with them. I mean, you would just look at them and things you could do, but that was our yearly game, to find out what we had before Christmas.
Again, the connection with the church and our home was so strong. We had the Sunday school program where we got together and we said the poems. I would get up and say "The Night
Before Christmas," and Daddy would sit there and look at me and he'd be so proud—at least that's my memory. As I said, it's interesting that both my older brother and sister stuttered. So here was this little plump girl saying all these things. But after it was over, the Christmas tree from the Sunday school, we would bring to our house. There would be several men from the church, and they would help. They would bring this sort of decorated tree over to our house, and it was just wonderful, you know. It was like suddenly you had a Christmas tree. Then, of course, we'd go to bed, and Mother would get these toys that we'd already seen, and put them under the tree. [Laughter.] It was really quite a happy time.
Again, holidays make me think of food, because that was such a sort of key element in our lives. I think, once again, the combination of—I mean, food was the legitimate thing you could do. The Southern background, my father's love of it, it being social and, in fact, it also had some professional implications for my father, because every Sunday there would be somebody from church who would come to eat. I can remember Mrs. Turnbow, who was my Sunday school teacher. We'd always laugh about those people who would come and they'd take all the best pieces of the food, and the kids would get the pieces that were left. So, of course, Christmas, those holiday traditions continued, and my mother really was a great cook. She did the kind of rolls that would melt in your mouth and all those things that contributed to my addiction. [Laughter.] I shouldn't put it in such harsh terms. It's years later that one begins to figure these things out. But, no, it really was a very happy time for us. I really can't think of a lot of negatives and things around that.
Of course, when Christmas fell on Sunday, it was a problem, because we also then had to go to church. We'd get up early and do that, and then we'd go to church. But the happiest times, of course, were when Christmas didn't fall on Sunday. I can remember, one Christmas, getting skates, and going off with other kids and skating, going down—there was a really good street several blocks from our house where they had a downward slope, and we'd skate. So my memory of holidays are very, very, very positive. They started getting complicated later on. [Laughter.]
One of the things you asked about was the role differential in terms of Adee and myself and even my older sister. If we look back in those early years, boys were kind of expected to work, but it was not necessarily the rule, and he was not at all forced to work when he was nine or ten. I think that was partly his choice, but certainly whatever little money he brought in was helpful. But the larger backdrop in terms of black families and black families from the South, and the kind of differing way that boys and girls were treated, is that, in general, if you had young women of promise or young girls whose family had the money, they would be more likely to want to send that child to college so that she could avoid the other extreme of being a domestic.
In our family, Adee, even though throughout junior high school and high school he had these extraordinary duties, he still went to college, and he still graduated from college. So we kind of veered some from the rule of some people, and I think it is because of the role that education always played in our lives, and I think it was our father's and mother's example. A lot of families where they weren't able to send a son to college, in the U.S. at that time there were layers of blue-collar jobs where men could, from the wages, support a family very decently. You didn't have to go to college in order to have a reasonably good life.
For example, my father's brother, Uncle Odell, the one who was jealous because Daddy went to college and he didn't, he had a very fine life, relatively speaking, with a very limited education. He finally migrated North and settled in Gary, Indiana, and worked in the steel mills of Gary. With those earnings and the pension and retirement and all, he was able to buy a modest house, he was able to marry and have family and children, and those are the kind of jobs that in
contemporary America just don't exist, or they exist in such small numbers. Those are the kind of jobs that began to disappear, you know, in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, etc., so that a whole generation of black men who might have once been able to support a family with a blue-collar job, when those jobs disappeared, these men were left with no way to support a family. It's part of the problem we now are seeing with the underclass and the children of the underclass.
Moorhus: So as long as you can remember, you kind of assumed that you would go on to college and that there were options for you, certainly other than being a domestic?
Gilliam: Yes. One of the things that I had learned to do pretty early was to type. So when I was a student at Lincoln Institute, I worked in the office, and in the summers I worked in the office. In fact, my typing skills were sufficient to be like the summer secretarial replacement for the president of the school. I worked as Mr. Whitney Young, Sr.'s secretary in the summers. So it was clear even then—and I'm sure my mother—my mother was never one to express a lot of outward pride in what we were doing. She was never one to brag on her children. But I think it was probably significant to her that while she was working in Mrs. Cameron's kitchen and Adee was taking care of the farm, he did that before school and after school, that I was working in the office at the school and even serving as secretary to Mr. Young.
Moorhus: In your early years, before you got to Lincoln Institute, as you thought ahead to your life, what kinds of things did you imagine yourself doing? What were your dreams at that point?
Gilliam: In my early life, I really can't pinpoint dreams of what I would be doing. The two careers that emerged strongly by the time I was in high school were lawyer—I remember saying I wanted to be a children's lawyer, whatever I thought that was—and journalism. They started emerging with some clarity in high school.
Before that, I had been, as I said, primarily someone who liked school, who did well in school, who seemed academically inclined and oriented. I remember my mother said, "Dorothy, you've got all kind of sense; you just don't have any common sense." You know, one of those negative things your parents lay on you. But it was a sense that I think always I was considered a person who would achieve academically and intellectually. But in terms of having real specific goals, dreaming of being a writer or writing poems and all of that, my memory is that I did relatively little of that.
Moorhus: Was there anything that you thought you couldn't do, any way in which your options were limited because you were black?
Gilliam: You mean as they emerged in those early years? I don't know whether the two careers I thought about were in part kind of constricted by the realities out there. Certainly I knew there were black lawyers. I don't remember having any kind of role model at all, certainly in terms of daily newspapers. I don't know where that came from. There just were no black people working in daily newspapers that I was seeing in Louisville, I mean at the Courier Journal or Louisville Times. It was unheard of even as late as the late fifties. Certainly in the forties, none of that was going on.
But I knew from my teachers, I knew from some of the people in my church that there were blacks who were professionals, so I don't think I had any notion that I couldn't do it. In fact, if there was a single echoing and reechoing thought, it was that we could do anything we put our minds to. Now, that didn't mean that we could go live in any part of town that we wanted to or that our money would buy us the same things as white people. Those were the realities that we
had to deal with. We dealt with the reality of segregation, but it wasn't anything that you internalized as to what your own capabilities were or your own abilities or where you could go and have an impact. It was more these external forces. It wasn't as though I wanted to—I mean, I never dreamt of being president. Those are the kinds of dreams we didn't have. I never dreamt of being a congresswoman. I never dreamt of owning a newspaper. Those were the kinds of dreams we didn't have. Those were the dreams that were constricted by the outside world, but in terms of the dreams that we could control, I didn't have the sense that there were things I couldn't do. In many ways I feel I was kind of trained for the mainstream. I was trained for opportunities that weren't there.
Moorhus: That's very interesting. What makes you say that?
Gilliam: Well, when I think back, it happened, I think, more in college than in high school, but even in high school—I graduated from high school in 1953, and that was a year before the Supreme Court decision.* The caliber of learning that I got at Lincoln Institute was mainstream learning, you know. I think in a way, with anything there's a plus and a negative. I don't mean to make it totally simplistic. I mean, there are positives and negatives. One of the positives of segregation, especially the kind of pure segregation before things started changing, was that we had these people who, through generations of their own development, had a real sense of who they were, and there was really no sense of inferiority, as they understood inferiority.
Because in many ways for me, as I said, white people were so different, it was like there was no reality about white people. There was a reality about a power structure, as much as a teenager can have that reality. But I can remember when—and I'm going to flip to college for just a minute, just to make this point—when I finished Lincoln, I got a scholarship to an all-women's college that was integrating for the first time. It was Ursuline College in Louisville. I ended up going there for two years, and then I transferred and went away to school. I was one of the first group of black women who integrated Ursuline. I remember the first time I stood at the mirror in the bathroom. It was one of these mirrors, and I was standing there, and a white girl was standing there, and I was standing there. It was like—it was the weirdest thing. I mean, it was just the reflection of her image and the reflection of my image, it brought what had been so unreal to me, it brought it home in a very real fashion, and it was a very surreal experience. It was somebody very, very different, but they were now very real, you know. Before, it had been more our knowledge of the system, the injustice of the system, what it meant, but it was not something we internalized.
I think what you find today with the young people, as they have integrated and they've been met with a lot of the inconsistencies of integration, as they've been met with sometimes the political system trying to turn who they are back against themselves, they have many, many more doubts about their own worth and about who they are and about their own capabilities. The system has affected me in many ways, but it's a different kind of thing. We can get into that later as we talk about getting to the Post and stuff like that.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: If I understand correctly, when you were in a segregated high school, you were being judged on your ability within that environment, not against whites or within a system that judged
* On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Educationof Topeka, unanimously banned racial segregation in public schools.
you differently, rather than on your own ability. That's not very clear as I say it. But what you're emphasizing, I think, is that there is some value of being in a segregated institution because it removes one of the bases for comparison which could, because it's part of a larger system, make you feel less comfortable with yourself.
Gilliam: If I understand what you're saying, I think that's what I'm saying. I'm saying that one of the advantages—though there were many disadvantages—but one of the advantages of that system was that the whole element of race was taken away. Everybody was black.
Moorhus: So then you could concentrate on what it was, who you were, and how well you could perform academically, who you were as a person, removing the element of race.
Gilliam: Yes. The fact that I had that throughout my upbringing, I think gave me a certain strength in terms of sense of self that I took into the integrated situations I went into later. This is a very different experience from somebody my age who grew up in New York and who had a different interaction.
Moorhus: I know this is skipping ahead, but it seems to fit right here. Would that lead you to be a supporter of some of the people that are arguing that young black men today should be in an educational situation exclusively for young black men, and that they would get something out of that segregated educational experience that they cannot get in an integrated situation?
Gilliam: It's a very different situation, but my view is that in the particular case of black men, they have always been under a particular siege in the society. I think the last twenty-five or thirty-five years, almost forty years since the '54 decision, when we have had the court-mandated integration, but we've not had the real integration, there's so many dynamics. I won't go into all the dynamics that are at play here, but I think that where we are now is a place where there is a segment of our population that feels so alienated and is responding so poorly because of all of these incredible dynamics at play, that I think that there are some rewards that they can reap from this kind of system—that is, from these kind of academies.
This does not mean that I at all believe in segregated schools. I don't. It's such a large, more complex issue. I don't believe in segregated schools. I think that in many ways the negatives that were attendant, that were at play there, and I think about what I have personally experienced in my whole journey and things I even currently experience, I'm sure, were partly at play from that experience behind the wall of segregation, I think really they are very difficult issues. But from where we are now, I think there are some populations that could benefit from that kind of separation. Now it's much more a matter of how they feel about themselves. What has happened to them has so constricted their own self-view that they almost need, this hopefully in order to be able to be brought to a point where they can then move out and be a part of—
Moorhus: But one of the things you've said was that you felt good about yourself as a high school student, even operating within that kind of an environment. There were some real pluses for you at that point.
Gilliam: But the difference was that it was very, very clear that this was a wall that was built by white society that said, "You can't do it." I mean, now this wall has been taken down, theoretically. So a lot of these kids say, "What's wrong with me?" I never had to say, "What's wrong with me?" I knew that the wall had been imposed from outside. We have an entirely different situation now, where the wall is down, and so if you can't do it, there's something wrong
with you. I never had to ask those questions. So the differences are so stark forty years later that they're hardly comparable.
Moorhus: But because of the barrier of segregation, whatever you couldn't achieve was not a reflection on anything that you could control or who you were; it was external and it was artificial? Is that part of what you're saying?
Gilliam: It was clear that the weight of the state, the church, the Constitution, the legal structure, it was clear that all that was the weight that was, in effect, keeping me in a certain place. So basically I had people who were saying, "Yes, all that exists, but you are still you." It became kind of a laboratory where you could develop who you were, in spite of all this. Once kind of confronting the reality, a lot of other things happened, but in terms of just developing and having a sense of who you are, I think there were definite advantages that we had over kids who were kind of fighting in this cauldron that developed after.
Moorhus: What kinds of things, when you were in high school, were you thinking about doing after high school, and who was helping you sort that all out?
Gilliam: As I said, I was thinking about law and I was thinking about journalism. The people helping me sort it out were the high school librarian, Mrs. Gearing, who still lives in St. Louis; and Mr. Mumford, my debating teacher. I was being given a lot of encouragement, once again, at church.
Church gave me a way to begin to assume some leadership roles, and that's a very important part of that overall upbringing, because I started out saying poems in church, so I felt that I could speak and I was special. Then the next level was becoming president of the youth group in church, and then the next level was going to various little cities around Kentucky—Elizabethtown and Paducah and places like this to attend various youth conventions. That was another level of developing certain skills and leadership. People at church were telling me that I could do whatever it is I wanted to do.
From home, as I said, the general expectation that I would go on to college was never anything we discussed. Even though there was no money, there was this expectation. The specific encouragement came from high school teachers. I'd always done well in school. It was an encouragement, as I said, that was echoed in a lot of these other venues.
Moorhus: Was Adee getting the same kind of encouragement?
Gilliam: I think not. I think he was getting a different kind of encouragement. He was getting the accolades for being a strong boy who was helping the family. As I said, when we were in high school, he got up in the morning and did some things on the farm before we went and caught the school bus and went to Lincoln [Institute]. He and I graduated from Lincoln at the same time. When we came home in the afternoon, I would go home and do things at the house and study and wash dishes, but before he could do those kind of things, he had to spend several hours taking care of things on the farm. He drove my father around. As I said, he got his driver's license early and had to be very responsible in order to do that. Because he stuttered, he didn't necessarily go through all these kind of leadership things of going to conventions. He was not as involved in those outward kind of activities. But he was being applauded. I guess now we look back and we'd say in many ways he probably became the kind of emotional husband of the family, you know. He was being applauded for what he was doing—helping Mother and just stepping into my
father's role. He ended up, as I said, marrying a young woman from our Sunday school, our church.
I have to tell you that everybody in my family has more money than I have now. [Laughter.] He became a very successful businessman. That early training always made him want to have money. I think it made him fear poverty. That early lack of a childhood, that early working and having to be a part of the family support system, he was just always determined. So after he graduated from college, he worked a while in the post office, but he went on and went into business. He ended up working very, very hard, but just very small businesses—you know, service stations, store, a car wash, all these kind of things. He bought a farm out in the very place where we used to sharecrop. So whereas I've taken a route which hasn't brought me much money, the others—my sister [Evelyn] owns a small hotel in Louisville—and they're small business people. Lynwood, my younger brother, who became a lawyer, and I went in other ways, but they have concentrated more on acquiring certain things. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: How is it that you ended up at Ursuline College? Tell me about that process.
Gilliam: When it was almost time to graduate, or sometime in that senior year, and these teachers who had been encouraging me and putting me forth all these years, of course, talked about college. By this time my father was dead. So the discussion was, of course, "Where do you go?" And, of course, the question becomes, "Where can you get a scholarship?" That was the only—these were the kind of people who helped you get what you needed, so they knew about Ursuline and the fact that Ursuline was, I guess, looking for some young black women to integrate, so they gave me almost a full scholarship. That's how I was able to attend.
The summer after Adee and I graduated, our family moved from the country back into town, and that made it very easy for me to catch the bus and go to Ursuline. As soon as we got back into Louisville, with the typing skills I had and that I had been able to perfect somewhat at Lincoln with all my office work, I was able to get a job at the local weekly black newspaper in Louisville [Louisville Defender]. So at seventeen—was I still sixteen? I don't know. Sixteen or seventeen, at any rate. I got a job there typing in the afternoon, typing letters and things, after my work at Ursuline.
Moorhus: Did you specifically go looking for the job at the newspaper because of your interest in journalism?
Gilliam: I have to say yes. I really wish I could remember the specific chain of incidents, but I am sure that in some part of my mind it was that I wanted to see whether or not I really was interested in journalism. Ursuline did not offer a journalism degree; they only offered an English degree. So for the first two years at Ursuline, I majored in English.
Moorhus: What happened to your interest in the law? Did you abandon that?
Gilliam: Yes. I think that I was sold on journalism after that period of working at the Louisville Defender. Actually, I started working there when I was a freshman at Ursuline. What happened was, as I said, I'd gone in as a secretary, and one day the editor, Mr. [Frank] Stanley, came in to me and he said, "The society editor is ill." I remember I said, "That's too bad." I was wondering why he was telling me. He said, "I'm going to let you fill in for her." So here's this preacher's daughter who had very restricted movement, certainly never in the home of people who would be considered black Louisville society, but I leapt at the chance. So I went in and filled in for the society editor. After a while, she didn't get better, and he said, "You're the new society editor."
So at seventeen, I was the society editor at the Louisville Defender, for all that meant, you know, in a sense, but certainly it was very big for me at that point.
It was that experience that pretty much sold me on journalism, and I think that's how law took a back seat. I was able to see how journalism just opened doors. Suddenly I was meeting the doctors in town and the people who—I didn't know there were black people who lived that way. There's always been a slice of people who lived well and entertained well, and they had china and crystal and all kinds of things—big houses. This journalism job had suddenly opened up my world like that, that quickly. I mean, where could it lead? What is this? You walk in and you say, "I'm from the paper," and you're greeted and you suddenly are just being introduced to worlds that are light years from the world you were experiencing. I think even in my relatively young state at that point, it was very clear to me that this was kind of a magic key that had been turned. I think that's what really hooked me on journalism.
What I had wanted to do after that was to really study it, so after a couple of years at Ursuline—in fact, that second year I spent time writing and trying to find a scholarship where I could major in journalism. The journalism school I heard the most about was the University of Missouri, and so I wrote to University of Missouri, and they were not able to offer me any scholarships. I have no idea how many blacks were on campus at that point. I wasn't really thinking necessarily about a black school; I was thinking about going away to study journalism. But I wrote to Lincoln University also in Jefferson City, Missouri, which was the leading black school at that time, and they offered me a scholarship and they offered me a kind of work scholarship.
One was flat and one I had to work my way through, so once again I used the typing skills, to which I had added, at Ursuline, shorthand skills. I was able with those skills to work in the office and pretty much take care of many of my expenses. In addition, my mother would send me a few dollars just stuck in an envelope, and I still remember with such warmth, you know, how she would do what she could, and it wasn't about checks and money orders; she'd put a little money in an envelope. Some of the people from the church would do the same. They would just send me a few dollars to help me through. So that's how I ended up at Lincoln University.
Moorhus: Another Lincoln.
Gilliam: Another Lincoln.
Moorhus: At the Louisville Defender, you were very young to have that kind of responsibility. How were you treated by the other reporters there?
Gilliam: First of all, I have to say the Louisville Defender was a weekly, not a daily, so, you have a whole different set of responsibilities and you have different requirements and different expectations. The other thing was that the publisher, Mr. Stanley, had a son, Frank, Jr., who also worked there. He wasn't a manager, but he was about my age. The next year there was another young woman who was hired to be a reporter, so even though I was young, they often used young people to do various kinds of things. But in terms of being society editor, I was very young. A lot of it—I mean, I look back, I don't think I could write that well, you know. [Laughter.] Of course, the expectations weren't necessarily that you had to be the world's best writer. I mean, the main thing was getting people's names and the occasions, etc., reflected. I must have done well enough. I didn't get fired. One day I must go back and look at some of those stories. That would really, really, really be fun.
But I don't recall getting any flak from the other people who worked there. I think there's always been kind of a protective attitude on the part of many older blacks toward younger people. I don't recall there being antagonism. We were young, and we were doing what had to be done. They also didn't have to pay us very much. But I remember being so proud to have some money to give Mother and to help at the house and to buy a few things for myself. It was certainly more than I was making when I was working at Lincoln [Institute] in the office out there.
Moorhus: Did the Defender give you expenses for going to these occasions, pay your cab fare?
Gilliam: I'm sure they must have. I can remember covering a Kentucky Derby, which was just so exciting, because the Derby was something that we'd all heard of, and everybody tried to make money off the Derby. I think we used to—oh, we did everything. I think Mother used to have people stay at our house during the Derby. Those were the days when you just cleared out a bedroom. The kids slept on the floor, whatever, because you were able to rent out a room. But the idea of actually going and being a part of it and talking to the black society people and all that, that was something that was really very much of a thrill for me. So, yes, I'm sure they paid expenses, and for me it was quite a bit of money. I don't have any idea how much. These are the kinds of things that people remember, like your first job, you made $18 a week or something. I don't remember stuff like this, but I really should try to go back and uncover some of this for myself as well.
Moorhus: Do you remember the experience of being edited, and whether or not they worked on your writing style or tried to influence the way you wrote at all?
Gilliam: That experience is most vivid when, at the age of twenty, I was hired by Johnson Publishing Company. That was right after I graduated from Lincoln [University]. I went to Chicago and worked for Jet magazine. I don't know if you've ever heard of Jet magazine.
Moorhus: Oh, yes.
Gilliam: Jet is the "Bible" of the black world in terms of news, etc. So my most vivid experience at being edited was there—vivid and painful and tear-jerking. Oh!
But at the Defender, even though it was hard work, I don't have a lot of strong memories of being heavily edited. I'm sure that I was. Mr. Stanley, who was the editor—his name was Frank Stanley, and he was quite a formidable figure, and he had these two sons. He was the epitome of the black middle class and very involved, but he was also involved nationally. The Defender was part of a small chain of papers. There was the Chicago Defender, the Louisville Defender, the Tri-State Defender in Memphis. Those are the three major ones that came to mind. There may have been one or two others. But he was the kind of person who certainly wouldn't hesitate to edit me, but I just don't have a lot of memories of being edited.
In a sense, by the second year, between his son, the other woman who worked there, who was a little older than I was, but still young, she, I believe, was a student at the University of Louisville, we sort of did things together, and I think we used to talk through things and edit each other. It's funny. I can't remember much about the editing process, you know, but I'm sure it happened.
Moorhus: Did you get a byline at that point?
Moorhus: Was that a heady experience?
Gilliam: I am sure that it was, although—yes, it was a heady experience. But as I said, again in terms of the way it affected me, it was more that it seemed to paint a vivid picture of possibilities, and that, yes, this is the road I want to take, as opposed to law. What I was getting from home was sort of just the support of, "You can do whatever it is you want to do, and anything you want to do is okay." I didn't get any kind of objections or whatever.
Moorhus: Did you have any interest at that point in moving more into news coverage? That would have been the period at which Brown v. Board of Education came out. I wonder if you remember that news event and whether or not that had any impact on what you were thinking about.
Gilliam: Yes, I remember that news event. I remember one of the black newspapers after that had a headline—or am I confusing that with the '64 decision?* But that was a very big, big, big event in black life—I mean, just an enormous event. You'd had the culmination of all these years, that Thurgood Marshall had worked, that Charlie Huston, you know, the work they had done in higher education. A lot of that we didn't know at that point, but it represented the culmination of a great deal of work. It was just startling.
I remember I didn't write a lot of that level of news, although I did start writing some news events. In Louisville, what would happen—some events that would start taking place a few years later had not yet occurred—that is, the kind of protesting for the elimination of segregation in restaurants and things like that. Just a few years later, all that would be happening. This was the very early period when the South was still saying, "Never!" Most of the action was in places like Montgomery [Alabama]. The Montgomery bus boycott took place in 1955.* But Louisville was still largely segregated—I mean, the vestiges of integration were things like Ursuline College, where I attended. My brother attended Bellarmine College, which was the brother school. He also went briefly to the army, although he didn't stay very long.
I was not writing the lead stories and the big stories, as I recall. Mine was more, as I said, the social events. We did get into some of the news, but not strongly. Remember I'm still a full-time student doing this stuff in the afternoon after school, going to night events on weekends and that kind of thing. But it was very, very busy.
Moorhus: Did you look forward to going away as a positive, or was it a little scary, or both?
Gilliam: I'm pretty sure it was a positive, although I'm sure it was also scary. It was a positive in the sense that it was going to be the first time that I was going to really kind of be away from the family and do some things on my own. When I was seventeen, at the same time I was just starting Ursuline, starting at the Louisville Defender, I also met the man I would eventually marry. This was Sam Gilliam, who was about three years older and was a student at the University of Louisville, an art student.
* Civil Rights Act of 1964.
*Beginning December 5, 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., led the black boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system. Desegregated service began on December 21, 1956.
So in many ways, the years between sixteen and eighteen, coming back [to Louisville] and starting college at sixteen and before I left for Lincoln, were exciting years. I had all the sturm und drang* of everybody else, of every other teenager. Probably in many ways mine was more difficult because I think I had a lot of unresolved issues in the sense that I had been this really fat person who had lost all this weight, probably weighing 135 or something after 200, but, of course, when you've had those kind of issues, as I said, the issues of teasing and all those kind of things, even though you look like everybody else, there's some things going on with you, none of which I had any idea about or addressed or anything like that. When Sam Gilliam saw me, he apparently said it was love at first sight. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: How did you meet him, and where?
Gilliam: He saw me, and he was the one who did the pursuing. You have to remember this era. He said he saw me on a bus, and I was on the bus going to Ursuline. I have to tell you a little bit about—Ursuline was located in the most exclusive all-white part of Louisville. It was in the Saint Matthews region. Here we had rigid segregation. Saint Matthews was where my mother usually went to work. But here I was going to school, so it was all very strange. I was going from the housing projects, where we had now moved, which was a big step above the outhouse and the sharecropping. I'd get on the bus and I'd go all the way out to Ursuline every day. A lot of dynamics there.
Sam was going to the University of Louisville, and he saw me on this bus. He didn't immediately introduce himself, but there was a place where, because we all went to different schools, there was a place where every Thursday night, teenagers of various ilks gathered, and, again, all this is all black. It was a settlement house in Louisville called the Plymouth Settlement House. We'd all go and we'd dance and meet boys and get to know each other and all that. So that's really where I think he made himself most known, and he took my phone number and started pursuing. He was not a person I immediately liked. I didn't find him attractive. He was tall and skinny and just all kind of things. But, you know, over the two years we were kind of off and on, and it was a typical kind of thing. When somebody really likes you, sometimes you don't like them. [Laughter.] But that was the other factor as I was thinking about going away to school. I was going to be leaving that behind, which was kind of all right, because, as I said, I wasn't as enamored of him as he seemed to have been of me, and we were both kind of seeing other people as well. This is all these days before pre-marital sex, so you're just talking about dancing and kissing. I mean, that's about as far as you got, at least in my line. I think I did most of that kind of stuff when I was a kid playing house, but after I got to be a reasonable age, that play stuff, you know, you didn't play house anymore. But I knew I was going to be leaving him and a lot of associations, but I was looking forward to being kind of on my own.
I was still very much considered a goody-two-shoes. I remember one man who was a friend of mine, we were talking, and he said, "I know college is going to change you so much. By the time you come back, you're going to be smoking, you're going to be drinking." And I said, "Oh, not me! No, no, no, no, no. Not me." But it was some element of liberation. This was the first time I'd really ever been away from home. So, yes, I'm sure I was afraid, but I was also excited.
I boarded the train at Union Station and had my trunk packed and everything that we could find to put in there, and I went off to Lincoln.
* "Sturm und drang" - German phrase meaning "storm and stress."
Moorhus: So you went from Ursuline, where you had been integrated into an integrated situation, back to an all-black institution. Before we take you back to Lincoln, what were some of the ways that being one of the integrators affected you, and how did you react to that?
Gilliam: It was very strange being in a predominantly white environment for the first time, going in at age sixteen. I went in fully formed in many ways as to my values, my culture, my belief systems. I knew nothing really about the other culture except I really knew a lot. Most of the newspapers I read were about what the power structure was doing, and that was white. Many of the books I read were about white people. I don't know that I even particularly thought of them in that term. In fact, all the classics were by white people, everything from Anna Karenina to Jane Eyre. So I felt as part of my understanding, or at least part of my fantasy life, I guess is more what you would think about books, but they do give you a certain understanding, I knew about this world, this life.
I knew about this life and this world and this culture from my mother having worked in it, and things she would tell me about the way people were, the way people acted. Many of the people at my father's church, men and women at my father's church, were domestic workers, so they talked about the women they worked for, the way they acted. They had very intimate views of this, you know. When you work in somebody's house, as you know, you have the most intimate look. But, of course, they worked for people who were relatively well off. The poorer people, they had very little knowledge of.
I knew about this—I use this word culture. The "white culture" is so much intertwined, of course, but I knew about it from radio. We didn't get a television set that was our own until we moved back into the city, but from a little girl, I listened to the radio and loved all those afternoon serials, you know, "Sergeant Preston" and "Lum and Abner" and what, in effect, are today's soap operas. But in many ways, the larger culture was a common culture and one that I understood in some way. It just wasn't real to me, you know, because I heard it on the radio. I loved all those afternoon things. I'd come in from school in the afternoon and I'd turn on the radio while I was washing dishes or doing whatever I had to do, and I would hear all these serials. At night we would listen to them.
Once television came out, on Sunday, when we'd go in to church, we would often not come back until the evening, or we'd come home and have dinner and go back, but we'd always end up looking at "I Love Lucy" and some of those early television things. So it was as though, once again, this was familiar to me in a way that what I was about was not familiar to the white girls, except, again, in much more narrow ways. I mean, we probably both had stereotypes, but mine were broader. Theirs were more narrow.
But another way I looked at it, I always thought in some ways it was better, because it was more omnipresent. I knew that in whatever rough way I understood it, I knew that was more powerful than what I came from. So it was a funny set of dynamics that were swirling around me. On the one hand I felt very able to do everything that needed to be done, and I did it well. The situation felt more academically uneven when I went to Columbia [University], but I don't recall feeling a lot of academic unevenness at Ursuline.
The situation at Ursuline was certainly balanced by the fact that I also stayed at home.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Gilliam: I was part of the group in which Sam was a part, the group where we danced at the settlement house and mingled and met the guys who we would talk on the telephone to and all that. I was able to balance some of the difficulties with this life that remained more or less the same.
I would remember more difficult problems with white people and the white culture later on. It became in more sharper focus later on, but I think the things that I found—I'd already started seeing ways that white people could really hurt me, and this was things like seeing—I remember some people I would see on the bus who were students, and they wouldn't speak to me. That was a real powerful kind of depressant for me. I guess in part I came from a Southern culture that was very—it was a high involvement culture, so this coldness was very difficult for me. Of course, I saw it all racially. That was a real problem. I remember sitting on the bus, and most of the black people on the bus would be people who were going to work, and there would be a few people who were going to school, but there weren't that many of us going out there. But I remember saying, "Oh, I just hope I don't see anybody. I hope I don't see any of these girls, because I don't want to be made to feel bad."
Moorhus: Did you make friends among the other black students?
Gilliam: Yes, I did. Yes, I did. In fact, very close friends. There's one woman who years and years after we both had children, I would still go back and call her when I was in Louisville.
Moorhus: Did you get any support from the white students?
Gilliam: Yes. In fact, some of them were different in school than they were outside. That was the duplicity, and it's a duplicity that blacks still contend with today. It's a duplicity that I sometimes contend with. That's always kind of been there. They would act differently inside, but they'd see you on the street and act like they didn't know you. This happens today, as I said. But there were still some relationships that were good in the somewhat constricted sense. I remember I did almost no socializing with the girls, although they would occasionally have joint Ursuline-Bellarmine dances. But we had our own social life, so I didn't do that, but I did other things. I sang in the choir at Ursuline.
I felt very well liked by some of the teachers—the sisters, primarily, who were very supportive of me and who were very encouraging. Learning shorthand was very hard. I learned it at Ursuline through the—there were some really very wonderfully dedicated nuns. In many ways, these were the old quaint days, you know, when nuns wore habits, and things that I learned there, I still remember. I had a priest, of all things, who taught a course called "Marriage," who gave me a definition of love that kept me in trouble for a while. [Laughter.] He said love was the willingness to totally abandon yourself to another human being. Oh, Lord. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Yes. Oh, Lord. [Laughter.]
Gilliam: And I think, in a sense, even then I was feeling the lack of a father, so I think men, especially kind of older male figures, men took on a particular importance in my life, and what they said took on a greater authority. It's been kind of an issue with me for a while, or it was an issue for a while. I took what he said to heart, unfortunately.
I still remember the sister who taught art appreciation. Of course, I really learned to appreciate art when I got married, but it was an interesting introduction. I participated in a lot of things at Ursuline. I remember once we went over to help repair and take care of the home of
someone whose house was in disrepair, sort of continuing the kind of community service thing that I had learned through my family and church. Somebody said community service is the rent you pay for being on this earth. So there were a lot of activities, and I felt I grew there, but it did have those difficulties and some of the problems we discussed among the black students, so that was a way of helping us cope with it. We were having similar kinds of problems. I don't remember having any kinds of problems as students have now, of teachers ignoring me. I think we were all known. You had people who were nuns, who felt a special calling. It was a small school, all women. So I think for a first integrated experience, there were factors present that made it much more positive than it might have been.
Moorhus: Do you remember either, or both, the number of blacks and the percentage out of the total?
Gilliam: Yes. I think in that first group of us there were about seven or eight out of the student body of about 250.
Moorhus: So it was a very small number. And then they continued integration so that the second year there were maybe twice that many?
Gilliam: No, there weren't twice that many. They continued, but not in those kinds of leaps. I don't know when those numbers changed, and I haven't really kept close tabs on them now.
Moorhus: Were you expected to go to mass?
Gilliam: We did go to mass. It was not the kind of stringent regime where you went every day, but there were times when you went to mass, yes, but the non-Catholics were not expected to genuflect and do the kinds of things that Catholics do.
Moorhus: That must have been a new experience for you. Did that raise any questions about religion, or did that become an issue at all?
Gilliam: No, not in terms of raising any real questions or concerns about my own. I was pretty firmly entrenched as an A.M.E., and I suspect what I did was to go to mass and pray to the God of my understanding. Mary certainly didn't have the same role for me that she had for them. But in many ways, when I look back at it, black people—Christianity as generally accepted by the white world, was generally the way it was also accepted in the black world. But in terms of having any big questions about Catholicism versus Methodism, it didn't have that impact at all.
Moorhus: Certainly the service itself is quite a different experience.
Gilliam: It was. It was something we did on occasion. Because there were so many non-Catholics at the school, there was no real effort at any kind of conversion or anything like that. I remember going, but not being particularly struck or moved in any way.
Moorhus: The students were not only different racially, but it was a different class than you had been operating within. Did you develop any particular feelings out of this class consciousness at this point in your life?
Gilliam: I think there was a real mix of class. These were not all upper-class girls.
Moorhus: Even though it was located in the—
Gilliam: Right. Even though the school was located in this very wealthy area, there was a real mix of students. So in terms of getting any clear notion of class, I think the answer would probably be no. Basically I was just seeing black and white, because those were the races at that point. Because my socializing with them was so limited, I rarely went into anybody's home. I don't remember that I did much of that at all. I don't think so. I rarely went into anybody's home, and the things we did together, such as singing in the choir, which we did—and I remember we did some public singing—and the kind of community work and all that, they were done in more neutral places. They had their own venue.
I didn't really go into anybody else's—really consciously look at any of the class stratifications among whites that really hit home. There are many blacks I've talked to in more recent years who have had different experiences, who are much more adept at being aware, and even at early ages, were much more aware of the class structures. They could talk about the difference between poor white trash, as they would call it, as the society would refer to them, and middle class and upper class and rich and all of that. But even in terms of the people who hired domestic workers, once again there was a range of people who had domestic workers. Some people were a lot richer than others. In fact, my mother worked for people who had varying levels of wealth.
Moorhus: It's eleven o'clock. Are you concerned about time today?
Gilliam: Yes, I am. Why don't we finish this tape, maybe.
Moorhus: We can certainly do that. Shall we go on to Lincoln University, then, or do you want to do some more with Ursuline?
Gilliam: It's eleven o'clock. This may be one of those days. I probably need to stop.
Moorhus: Okay. We got you to the train station. Right?
Gilliam: Yes. We'll start at Lincoln.
Moorhus: We'll start at Lincoln next session. Okay.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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