[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: We will start this evening with Lincoln University. Tell me why you decided to go there and about your leaving Louisville.
Gilliam: I had, as I said, attended a college in Louisville [Ursuline] for a couple of years at the same time I was working at the black weekly, the Louisville Defender, in my hometown, and that really reinforced my desire to have a career as a journalist. So I spent some time looking for a school to go to that would give me a journalism career and that offered a major in journalism. One place I was told about, and I inquired about, was the University of Missouri, and I checked to see if they had scholarships available, and they didn't.
Then I heard about the School of Journalism at Lincoln University, and I was able to get a work scholarship, and so that is why I ended up going to Lincoln University. It was a well-known school. It was started because a black woman in Missouri had wanted to go to the University of Missouri. The state denied her entrance, but they built a journalism department at the Lincoln University, which was a predominantly black school, which was almost an all-black school in the early part of the thirties, forties, etc. It was a school actually built after the Civil War by former slaves for the education of blacks in Missouri. I'm blanking on the name of the woman. It's a very well-known case, and I will come back to that name, and we'll write about it. The woman actually still is alive and is still working in Kansas City.
Moorhus: Lucile Bluford?
Gilliam: Lucile Bluford.
Moorhus: She's one of the people being interviewed for this project.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. So she was the focus of a very well-known court case. When she couldn't go to the University of Missouri, they started the journalism department at Lincoln University, and that's the school I attended.
How was it leaving Louisville? Oh, it was exciting for me to go away to school. As a junior, I had lived a pretty sheltered life in many, many ways as a minister's daughter, and so a lot of the things that many teenagers did, I guess, I never did—smoking, drinking, that kind of thing. So I was looking forward to going away, but I was sure that I still would be pretty much the same person I was. I remember one of my friends making a wager that, "You'll be smoking and drinking like everybody else." And I said, "Oh, no, not me." And, of course, I was.
Moorhus: Did you have any help from any of the faculty at Ursuline in terms of applying to Lincoln University?
Gilliam: I don't recall that I had any help, but I must have had some guidance in general. I don't know how I found out about the University of Missouri, etc., unless I had gotten—I certainly had
some help from some quarters, and I don't recall that it was from the people at Ursuline or not. I would have expected that, since I was working at the Louisville Defender, that the editor there would have certainly known about Lincoln. The University of Missouri was well known as a school of journalism. There weren't any schools in the immediate area that offered journalism. But as to who made the suggestion of Lincoln, I just don't recall.
As I said, I took the train. I was trying to remember about the segregation at the train station, but I would assume that in 1955, when I was going, the train station in Louisville was probably still segregated. Louisville was a quite segregated city in many ways. There were, by the time I was away in the late fifties and early sixties, there were a number of demonstrations by blacks trying to open up facilities in Louisville. There was also quite a battle over integration of schools. This is something that is very easy to check, but I'm pretty certain that there were white and colored waiting rooms and all the paraphernalia that made it so difficult growing up in the South. The other thing I don't remember is whether or not the trains to go into Missouri were segregated. Somehow, I don't have memories of that, but those are things that are easily checked out, and I'd like to check them out, because I need to check them out for my own information as well.
I remember getting my trunk packed and my family getting my trunk on the train. My older sister [Evelyn] had gone away to a vocational school, but I was the first to go away to college, and so it was all very exciting. Lincoln is located in Jefferson City, Missouri, which is the capital of Missouri, so it's a capital city, and for that reason had a certain amount of sophistication. You know, people did come to it. Quite a medium-sized city. Once again, the campus was not a totally striking campus. I mean, you wouldn't call it a beautiful campus, but it looked quite beautiful to me, you know, a couple of boys' dormitories, girls' dormitories, administration buildings. The journalism school was at the bottom of the hill, so there were a lot of steps we had to climb back and forth to get to the School of Journalism. But it was really quite a fine school in many ways, quite full service in the sense of a large agriculture department, ROTC, music, science, arts. Quite a school, and I think it was very dear to me, because there were friendships that I made there that were long-lasting friendships. Even today, there are people that I—not that I necessarily talk to them regularly, but if I meet or see them, we can instantly go back and remember, and there are deep bonds between a lot of the people there.
The head of the School of Journalism was a man named Dr. Armistead S. Pride, and there were several other teachers who were well known, especially among black publishers. We published a newspaper there called the Clarion. Dr. Pride was something of a scholar—and I say "something" of a scholar. Probably I shouldn't qualify it in that way, but he was a scholar on the black press. There is a book, I believe, that will be coming out sometime within the next year or so, that's based on work that he did. Dr. Pride only died in the last three or four years at a quite advanced age, and the book that he did on the black press and some of the figures in the black press will be published sometime within the next year or so. It was completed by Dr. Clint Wilson, who is the head of the Department of Journalism at Howard University now, so the name Armistead S. Pride is a well-known one among scholars of the black press and certainly also some publishers.
Dr. Pride took a liking to me early on, and so he was always very encouraging. We all took turns being editor of the paper, so I was the editor after a while. I had a really good time in many ways at Lincoln. I had joined a sorority before I left Louisville; I had become a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, so I when I arrived on the campus as a junior, I had some immediate ways to maintain and establish social contact because of my sorority affiliation. So that was very, very good.
I was relatively quiet. I guess you'd call me kind of book-wormish, certainly compared to some of the young ladies. There was a large contingent of people there from St. Louis, and a lot of the women from St. Louis seemed to be very good with relationships with the opposite sex, so they seemed to have a lot more fun than I did. [Laughter.] But people there came from all over the country. I had excellent friends from Texas and Missouri and Oklahoma, so it was really a good crowd and a good group, and we used to have some very, very good times. At the same time, there was a lot of very serious work going on. I had my share of campus infatuations—nothing that turned out to be of the ultra-lasting kind. Since I was such an earnest student, I was very, very pleased when I was named—I think it was my senior year—I was named the Alpha Sweetheart, and I got to ride in the parade, and I was so excited.
There were some very memorable teachers at Lincoln. One of my favorite teachers, and one of the most impressive teachers for me, was a man who gave me a great sense of my history as a black person in America, and his name was Dr. Lorenzo Greene. He had been a student of a man who was dubbed the father of Negro history, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and he had also been Dr. Woodson's assistant for a while. He [Greene] was a tremendous lecturer. He lectured with so much passion and with such total command. He was the person who made us understand that black history didn't begin with slavery, and he talked to us about the beginnings of black history in Africa and the ancient periods of Africa where the great universities existed, and the relevance of Egypt. He gave us a whole wider sense of who we were, because so much of the history—even though I had, from a very early stage, been given a pride in myself and a pride in my race through outstanding people who had fought the odds and won, he really told us about an earlier history. That's a history that only now is beginning to emerge in more accepted ways, as we talk about Afrocentrism and trying to correct some of the history that for so long was distorted in the history books, so long hidden away, so long negated and suppressed and reduced. He was one of those real seminal figures in my life, as he really gave us a clearer view of who we were as historical players, as players on the world stage. So that was a very important part of my coming of age and having a sense of who I was.
Moorhus: Did you have him for more than one course?
Gilliam: I had him for the entire time I was there, I believe—different history courses. Yes, I'm sure I had him, because I think I was seeking him out, and he liked conscientious students, and I was one. I was just thrilled with him. So I think I had him for if not two years, certainly three semesters out of four, maybe four, even. He only died a few years ago. We would keep in touch on certain occasions. I got an award from Lincoln many, many years later, and I was able to see him, and once or twice he was in Washington, and we saw each other and talked.
Moorhus: How many students were in the journalism program?
Gilliam: In the journalism program, I would say forty, fifty, something like that, and that's just as memory serves.
Moorhus: So it was a pretty small group.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. It was not a huge group. Journalism was not one of the most popular majors, but there were several good teachers. There was a kind of old-fashioned quality about it, and by that I meant they still had the notion that we were supposed to know something about the entire journalism business, so we actually had some handheld linotype things. We had to take some linotype courses, and we actually set headlines with that old-fashioned type, and learned
something about advertising and something also about subscriptions, the business side, not a lot, but just enough so that you got a fuller picture of what the newspaper business was about.
Moorhus: Did it involve broadcast journalism, too?
Gilliam: You mean television and all that?
Moorhus: Radio, television.
Gilliam: Certainly not television, and I'm trying to remember if it involved radio. My memory is that it was primarily the business side of the newspaper and then the editorial side and the news side.
Moorhus: Did you live in a sorority house?
Gilliam: No, we didn't have separate sorority houses, so I lived in the women's dormitory, had a roommate both years. You would be of the age to understand and may have had the same kind of experience in school, but we had curfews.
Moorhus: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
Gilliam: We had eleven o'clock curfews, and those people who had the audacity to stay out past curfews were just sort of pariahs. This was all really quite proper and correct. There were three or four women's sororities, three major ones, and we all had various kinds of events, social events, induction of other people, and there was rivalry between the sororities, but certainly of a pretty good, clean nature, comparatively speaking, and the same with the boys' fraternities. Then, of course, we had all the sports, and it was just a wonderful experience.
When I look back, I am very, very happy that I didn't go to the University of Missouri, that I was not accepted, because for my own development, for my own sense of self, given, I think, the insecurities I had with my father having died early, with having been a formerly fat girl who had been humiliated, and dealing with a lot of—not necessarily even dealing with these things. There were issues in my personality that I didn't necessarily recognize or wrestle with, but I think there were certain underlying tendencies there, and certainly one thing that was important for me was to be in a situation where I was nurtured, and where there weren't the kind of extra pressures of race that would have been the case at a place like the University of Missouri, where, in 1954, I can't believe there would have been more than two or three blacks. In retrospect, I'm happy that I was able to go to Lincoln. As I said, I did well academically. I was cum laude, and when I graduated—
Moorhus: Before you graduate, I want to ask a couple more questions. You said you were there on work study and a scholarship. What kind of work did you do while you were there?
Gilliam: I worked in the office. In fact, when I was at home at Christmas, I pulled out a picture from that time. This is a picture of me when I was working at the Louisville Defender. This is me at my desk. I would have been either a freshman or a sophomore at Ursuline, and these very handsome West Point cadets came to the paper, and, of course, I was in love immediately. [Laughter.] They came to the paper, and this picture was taken around my desk.
Moorhus: That's a great picture.
Gilliam: Yes. And this picture was me at Lincoln. I'm in the office. This woman was the dean of students, and I worked in the office, I think, for her, in part. This is the dean of women. This was an army recruiter who was coming to the school, and she was interviewing me. I'm not sure. There were a few white students at Lincoln.
Moorhus: Yes, I was going to say, that's a white girl.
Gilliam: Right. So I think that's why, that she was one of the few white students at Lincoln, because it was after '54 now, and so there were a few, and I think that was her. Then this is the dean of students, and I don't remember her name, but I worked in the office of the dean of students. That was my job.
Moorhus: The dress with the white collar and the pin at the front, it's a wonderful picture. And you look very serious, very conscientious.
Gilliam: Yes, yes, yes.
Moorhus: During the two years that you were there, did you go back to Louisville to visit?
Gilliam: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I went home. I couldn't afford to go home for Thanksgiving, but I went home for Christmas and in the summer. Yes, definitely.
Moorhus: Did you go back to work at the Defender, then, in the summer?
Gilliam: In the summer, I believe I did. I believe I did, yes. And then also I had to take a summer course between my junior and senior year. I was never great in the math courses, so I had to take an algebra course, and I don't know exactly where I took that, but at one of the colleges in the area. That was also a big occasion. When I kept coming home from school, it was always a big occasion for my mother. And I remember my mother, all this time, my mother was still working as a domestic worker, and she didn't have very much money to send me, but she would just put a few dollars in the letters that she would send me. Sometimes the women from the church would send me just five dollars in an envelope. There was one woman who did that, Mrs. Jessie Mae Patton, and she just died within the last few months. She was in her late nineties, and she was one of those women who used to always—who was a domestic worker also—and she sort of adopted me as her play daughter. She never had children, and she would send me money. I just think about what it meant to get those few dollars and the things we bought. I remember when I was the Alpha Sweetheart and I was trying to figure out how I was going to get a new dress and all that, and everybody just pitched in. My sister and my brother and everybody just pitched in, and we got it together, because there really was no money in the family. My brother did much of the—my sisters and brother helped.
Moorhus: There was a real sense of support and community that you were part of back in Louisville, and it carried with you, then, when you went to Lincoln, apparently.
Gilliam: Yes, especially from my church, because when we moved into the country for those years, the church was still the center of our social life and our religious life and everything. So when we moved back in and those three years or so that we lived in the housing projects, once again, the sense of community—we were not in the community—
Moorhus: Physically, but the spiritual community.
Gilliam: Right. So that was that same community that I carried with me to Lincoln and that supported me in Lincoln, and it's the same community in many ways today when I go back to Louisville to that same church. Many of those people are still there and that sense of support and family, it's still there.
Moorhus: When you went back to Louisville from Jefferson City, vacations and over the summer, did you pick up with Sam Gilliam?
Gilliam: Yes, as a matter of fact. Let's see. [Pause.] Yes. I mean, yes and no. Let me think about this a little bit. Sam also went into the service. I believe it was in 1956 when he graduated from the University of Louisville, he was sent to Japan, and he was in Japan for two or three years. So we were kind of, as I said, on and off. But we continued our correspondence, and when he was in Louisville, we would see each other, and then part of the time he was away. In fact, I'm pretty sure when I went back in '57, after graduating from Lincoln, he was not there. I think he was away from '56 until '58, and by the time he returned in '58, I was somewhere else.
Moorhus: So you were ready to graduate from Lincoln in spring of—
Gilliam: In the summer. No, I'm sorry, it would have been June, late June, early summer, of '57.
Moorhus: And did you consider other things other than going back to Louisville?
Gilliam: I was looking for a job, and I sent letters to several places. My preference was, actually, to go directly to a job of some kind. I sent a letter to the editors of the Courier Journal and Louisville Times—they were the morning and evening papers owned by the Bingham family in Louisville—trying to see if I could get a job there. They wrote back a very cryptic note, that, in effect, said, "Don't bother us." There was absolutely no encouragement whatever. I was asking about summer intern positions, anything, and I was very summarily turned away, and I have no doubt about the fact that it was all based on race. There's no doubt about it. There was no serious consideration.
I also, I believe, sent letters to the papers in Indiana. I was trying to get jobs in the vicinity of Louisville, and, again, I remember one paper where I inquired about internships. I was told that they had two internship spaces which they had already given to a couple of students from the University of Indiana. In both these letters, it was the tone of, "Don't bother me. This is it," and we all know the difference between letters that are encouraging and those that, in effect, say, "I don't want you."
So with that kind of response from the white press, you know, most of these papers had no blacks at all on them. During this time, the daily press was just extraordinarily segregated. In fact, they had only begun to write about blacks in the mid-fifties, around the time of the school segregation and the school desegregation cases. I kind of got it in my head that that route was going to be pretty futile. So I decided to start looking for a job at a black newspaper, and since I had worked at the Louisville Defender for so long, I certainly wanted something different.
I wrote a letter to the Tri-State Defender in Memphis, Tennessee, and in August, I was hired there as a reporter. I was at home looking for a job for a couple of months, and in August, I packed up my trunk again and went down to Memphis. Memphis, of course, had many, many connotations for me. One, I had uncles and aunts there, and although I left when I was a very tiny child, it still was my hometown, so I was curious about, and looking forward to, going to Memphis.
The Tri-State Defender had a very kind of picturesque editor whose name was Alex Wilson. He's a real tall, very dark, lanky guy who had a very hoarse, gravely voice. He had this real rough kind of exterior, one of these people who everybody says had a heart of gold, which you couldn't prove by me. But he was the editor for whom I went down to work. Of course, I soon realized how little I knew, because working for the [Louisville] Defender, I think, had given me a bit of a feeling that I knew something about journalism when I really didn't. There was very little editing of anything going on. The Tri-State Defender, I think, was a cut above the Louisville Defender. Also, I was writing, basically social stuff, etc., at the Louisville Defender. I had never really written the kind of stories that Mr. Wilson wanted. The Tri-State Defender wanted the crime stories, and he would really push me to write these stories with more interest and more flair and more—"Let's get these stories, let's make people want to read them!" He was always pushing me about getting my writing livelier and peppier and more drama in these stories about these murders and stuff and crime and all that. I remember there was once a story about a grandmother who was teaching her kids to steal or something, or either her kids were stealing and she knew about it, and she was a part of it. So he wanted me to evoke all this imagery of Fagin.*
Moorhus: Out of [Charles] Dickens.
Gilliam: Dickens, yes. So he would kind of whip up the prose and make me whip up the prose. It was really all quite interesting and different. It didn't inspire in me any great sense that I was born for this kind of work, frankly, but, of course, that wasn't what I had in mind when I went to journalism school, writing fancied-up stories about crime.
Moorhus: What did you have in mind when you went to journalism school, and what kind of a job would you have liked to have had?
Gilliam: I really wanted to go to a daily newspaper at that point. I suspected that I would have to start as a crime reporter, because most journalists did—I mean a police beat reporter. But I really wanted to—I mean, I was ready for daily newspaper kind of things. If you had asked me to sketch out a hard and fast profile of what I wanted and how I saw myself, I doubt if I could have done it. I just wanted a job on a daily newspaper, and I was just going to see where it led. But when those doors were closed, then I took this route.
But an interesting thing happened. I keep stressing all of these crimes, the crime reporting, because that was sort of the bread and butter. I guess Memphis was fewer than a hundred miles from Little Rock [Arkansas]. Again, Memphis is in the heart of the South, and this was the old Memphis, before integration and change. Memphis had a real rich history in terms of music with Beale Street and the blues and musicians. All that was still going on when I was there, and the paper was a very integral part of that. This was a very small staff. It was Mr. Wilson and I, there was a photographer and a couple of other people, but he did a lot of the writing himself.
But what happened was, I started in August, but in September of '57, something historic happened in Little Rock. It was the integration of Little Rock, the high school.* So I had stumbled within a hundred miles of one of the biggest stories of that era, and so here I was, this
* Fagin was the head of a gang of thieves in Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist, published in 1837.
*Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus (b. January 7, 1910) (Governor 1955-1967) called out the National Guard to block integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
twenty-year-old reporter working for Mr. Wilson. I had only been there a few weeks, and when Little Rock broke, Mr. Wilson, of course, was going to go to Little Rock, as well he should have. I wasn't prepared to do that story, probably, in the way that was needed, with depth and all that. But the thing about it was that he told me to stay home, stay at the office, and you know I couldn't do that. So he went to Little Rock, and as soon as I could, I went to Little Rock as well. I did all my work in Memphis, and I just had to go. It was like I was being drawn by a magnet.
So against his express orders, I went to Little Rock. I went over with a photographer, Ernest Withers, who knew everybody and knew how to do things, and knew where to go. We went to the home of Daisy Bates, who was the head of NAACP in Little Rock. Her home was the command center for the Little Rock Nine, and it was also the place where a lot of the black reporters came. Some of them actually stayed there. It was a place where they held the strategy sessions, and only certain reporters who were well known and who were really venerable were a part of this, and Alex Wilson was a part of it. I was not, of course, but when I decided I was going to slip over there, after I had done all the work he told me to do at the office, this photographer and I went there, and he was very angry that I had defied him, but he let me stay. He became a player, almost, in this. Actually, upstairs I have Daisy Bates' autobiography, and if you want at some point, I'll get that, because it'll have something. I haven't read it yet. I'm going to be emceeing a program on Wednesday in which Daisy Bates is going to be featured.
Moorhus: Where is that going to be?
Gilliam: Here in Washington at—I've forgotten the name, some hotel. But one of the reasons I'm doing it is because of this connection that goes back, and I don't think she will remember me at all, but she will definitely know and remember Alex Wilson. As I said, Alex Wilson became part of the story, because he was—you probably don't remember this, but there were several newsmen who were attacked by the mob as they were walking down the street, I believe behind the students, and one of those was Alex Wilson. If you look at almost any of the stories, and especially the stories in picture books from that time, they will have those pictures of Alex, of Mr. Wilson, who was attacked by the mob. One of the reasons he told me he didn't want me there, he said, "It's too dangerous over there for a girl. It's too dangerous." And I said, "Mr. Wilson, you can't—it's the biggest story of the year," and by then the troops were in the area. And he said, "No, you stay here." I don't know if he was just shocked to see me come or not, but he was very kind to let me stay.
I did some reporting and did some backup, met quite a few people, and, interestingly enough, as a result of having been in Little Rock, I met some of the editors from Jet magazine, and they offered me a job in Chicago. So after two months working for the Tri-State Defender, I left and became an associate editor at Jet magazine.
Gilliam: I know! I know! It was just wonderful. If I had not disobeyed Mr. Wilson and gone to Little Rock, I would have never met the people who eventually saw me, and I don't know what they saw, because I certainly didn't feel that I was any great, outstanding reporter at that point.
Moorhus: You said that you were drawn to Little Rock as if by a magnet. Was that your sense of it being a great story? Were you drawn as a journalist or as a young, black female?
Gilliam: I think it was all of the above. By this time, [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower had ordered the troops to Little Rock. Everybody was talking about it. It was everywhere on the news, this confrontation. It was history in the making. As a black woman, as a black young lady, and as a journalist, it was like the biggest story ever that I had been around. I was staying at the YWCA in Memphis, and the thought of going back to my room at the Y and not being over there to see this and witness that, I know now, looking back, that's part of what made me a journalist, this fascination with events and history-making events.
Moorhus: Had there been any other event or activity that had drawn you like that, or had there been any other sign for you that you had that curiosity?
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: What was the combination of things that were going on? You hadn't had any history of participating or being particularly an activist, is that right?
Gilliam: That would be correct.
Moorhus: So this was kind of a combination of a whole lot of things all coming together?
Gilliam: Yes, primarily I saw my role as one of observer, but wanting to be there to witness and to be able to write about it in the Tri-State Defender.
Moorhus: Did you get to do articles for it, then?
Gilliam: I know I must have. He did the big articles, but I wrote some things, too. If you ask me to this day, I don't know what I wrote. I really need to go back and look at these dates and look at some of the stuff I wrote. That's been a weakness of mine. I guess I've just been so busy doing, that I've not kept a good record of things that I have done, so I don't know what I wrote, but I must have written something. In part, I think that the reason I got the offer from Jet was that they must have seen my writing.
Moorhus: What did they offer you?
Gilliam: They suggested that I come up and be interviewed, and basically they offered me a job as an associate editor. Now, it sounds more important than it is. They called all their writers associate editors. It was really like a writer/reporter. But truly to me, it sounded absolutely like the big time. Jet was then, and still is, the premier black weekly magazine. It's a little small thing people can put in their pockets, but from the moment it hit, it was just an astonishing hit. Even then, it was really quite something.
My older sister Evelyn by then was living in Chicago, so that was another attraction. I also had relatives in Chicago, so I realized that if I got this job, I'd have relatives, and I could live with my sister. I had never really quite gotten settled in Memphis, because, as I said, I was living in the Y and looking around for a place. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't hard to leave. I hadn't sunk any roots down. So basically I was hired as an associate editor [at Jet].
Moorhus: So you moved to Chicago in October of '57?
Gilliam: Yes, after just this very brief tenure. I don't think Mr. Wilson was very happy that I left him so soon, especially since he was just teaching me a few things.
But that was really quite an experience, I must say. First of all, just Chicago itself. When I first got there, my sister was staying in kind of a home for women, and it was not my idea of where I wanted to live. It was really all right, but it just wasn't—
Moorhus: What was she doing in Chicago?
Gilliam: She was working as a seamstress down in the loop. I don't know that this was necessarily the place she'd want to be forever, but she had made herself comfortable there, so when I came, I said, "Why don't we get us an apartment?" We looked around and found some horrendous places that they were trying to rent at horrendous prices, but then we ended up settling on a very nice place, which she and I both were very happy with, in a place called Lake Meadows, which was a nice highrise with a view of the lake [Lake Michigan].
Moorhus: North Side, South Side?
Gilliam: South Side, but really nice. Working at Johnson Publishing Company was another of those life-changing experiences. As I said, when I got there at twenty, I think I was probably the youngest associate editor they'd hired. The magazine was not very old at that point. I don't think the magazine was more than three or four years old. I don't remember exactly when it was started. It was still in its infancy, but still in the form that has endured to this day.
The editor was a man called Ed "Buck" Clayton, and he was really, again, one of these crusty guys who was very, very short-tempered when the copy wasn't like he wanted. I was doing all kind of things, writing these little short stories, little things that would finally drive me away from there. [Laughter.] The centerfold would be a girl in a bathing suit, and I'd write the copy for the girl in the bathing suit, and I'd rewrite articles from papers. A lot of it was rewrite, so you really were supposed to be quite smooth as a writer, and I was definitely learning as I was going. I remember Mr. Clayton once said to me, he said, "You write like you've got concrete in your fingers." I remember many a day I would go into the bathroom into the ladies' stall and just cry, "Oh, will I ever get this?" Because they were just rough. They were really hard on you. But I thank goodness I had someone who really looked out for me. He used to call me Rookie. He was the copy chief, and he really looked out for me. He kept the wolves away and just tried to help me, and would sort of comfort me when Mr. Clayton would go off and would be critical.
Moorhus: Were there other women on the staff?
Gilliam: I don't think there was another woman associate editor at that point. Maybe there was another woman. There were only about six of us who were associate editors.
Moorhus: So you were very young and the only woman.
Gilliam: Let me go back and check that. There were other women working in the building and doing other things—librarian—but in terms of there being another woman who was an editor, I don't believe so. I know there was a woman who came during the summer and did an internship there—Rae Pace Alexander. There were women who were working at Ebony. There was a woman who was the society writer. Somehow that—isn't that funny, little things like that—because it's not a little thing when you think about it.
Moorhus: Well, yes, it's kind of a big thing if you were the first woman that they had hired, for example.
Gilliam: Yes. I don't know about that; I doubt it.
Moorhus: But you didn't have any sense of being part of a group of women and having women as a support for you?
Gilliam: No, no. I don't have any memory of that. The support on that, it was definitely Carter [Woodson].
Moorhus: And you said he kept the wolves from the door.
Gilliam: Well, you know, you're just sort of young, and at certain points, youth itself is enticing to men, you know. You don't have to be any great raving beauty.
Moorhus: But he did seek to protect you?
Gilliam: Yes, he did.
Moorhus: Kind of as a father figure sort of thing?
Gilliam: Yes. And that was very helpful. There were so many things I didn't know. One of the things is, because this was sort of the premier black weekly magazine—and people today still call Jet like the Bible, in many ways. Even though something happens, it hasn't really happened until it's been in Jet, until it's been recorded in Jet. So there was a little bit of that. There were people who wanted to be in the magazine—entertainers. Johnson Publishing and Jet and Ebony all were published under the same roof, and it was a very nice building. It had a dining room, and it was like one of those places that was a de rigueur stop for entertainers and things like that. They all wanted to be in the magazine, so as an associate editor, you were sort of courted to get people in the magazine. That's just part of our job as journalists. Now I'm very accustomed to it, but then—Sammy Davis, Jr. would come and dance on the desk tops, if not literally, figuratively. So you were in a slightly rarefied position here, in terms of people who thought, probably, that you had more power than you did. You would get kind of besieged in certain ways, and so he was a good person just to talk and help keep it all in perspective. I was always being invited places.
Chicago was a funny town. There was kind of an intensity about a black bourgeoisie there that I had not been exposed to, because in Louisville, I was part of my church, and even though I covered social things for the [Louisville] Defender, Louisville was small compared to Chicago. Chicago had many cliques and groups, etc., there, so I found myself feeling pressured to do things that had to do with image. I remember once I actually borrowed my neighbor's fur stole to go somewhere. It was like, "Why do I need a fur stole?" If I can't afford it, I don't need it, you know. I just found myself getting caught up in what I thought was a lot of phoniness, so Carter was a good person to talk through things with. I also lived with my sister, as I said, which was another good balancer. At the same time, I just felt that I was being influenced in ways that weren't particularly substantive. But that was kind of an undercurrent during part of the time I was there.
Moorhus: Did you date?
Gilliam: Yes, I dated some. I dated some kind of well-known people. I remember a singer, and I think about him, because to me that was part of those people who were trying to date you for what they thought you might be able to get for them. I wasn't smart enough to see all that at first, but those were among the lessons I learned. I tell you what I ended up doing at one point:
I dated, in a very conscious way, a man who was probably—a very nice man, but he was probably the equivalent of a truck driver. I just couldn't deal with all of that Jet magazine celebrity phoniness.
Moorhus: So you wanted somebody that was "real."
Gilliam: Real. And I don't even remember his last name, but I remember his name was Harry, and he was not very well educated, but he was real and he was very fond of me, said what he meant and he meant what he said, and it was like my way of fighting those kind of crazy tendencies to borrow other people's fur stoles and to show up down on Rush Street at the jazz clubs as the date of Lonnie Satin or somebody, you know. [Laughter.] I mean, I did those things, and I thought, "It's not me. It's not what I want."
I guess the love affair that I remember that started in Chicago was a man, an African leader named Tom Mboya, who was from Kenya.* He was coming to the U.S. on several occasions, courting government leaders. He was a part of his country's independence apparatus. He was a trade unionist. I met him when a mutual friend had a party when he came to town, and we just kind of hit it off. I must say, I had this naive attitude about men in a sense, because I probably thought it was more serious on his side than it was. But certainly there was the mutual attraction, and we saw each other in Chicago, and at one point, he invited me to Washington, and I came to Washington and saw him there. It finally kind of fizzled out, but several years later, I would actually go to Kenya, and that is—
Moorhus: A later chapter?
Gilliam: Yes, a later chapter.
Moorhus: Was he much older than you?
Gilliam: Not that much. He was no more than about thirty when he started coming over. Just a young, brilliant man. In fact, I've got a couple of books about him up on my shelf, books that were written later. He was finally assassinated in Kenya, so he was that kind of leader. It seems to me that in the sixties everybody was being assassinated.
Moorhus: Yes. You mentioned Sammy Davis, Jr. Are there other people that you remember—political figures, entertainers?
Gilliam: Who used to come to Jet? Oh, gosh, everybody came through here. Sports figures. Why can't I think of the names? Whoever was big.
Moorhus: Did you do interviews with people?
Gilliam: Yes, I did interviews. I did a few cover stories. The cover story I remember most was, I did a whole series about this man in jail, in prison, in federal prison in Indiana, and I went down to the prison and interviewed him. I think the main thing I remember there is that his contention was that he was being unfairly imprisoned, and I think I believed it. So I wrote several stories about him. I'm trying to remember if he was ever released, what was the resolution of that case. I left before any final resolution, and I can't say that I know what the final resolution was.
* Tom Mboya - spokesman for Luo tribe in Kenya; assassinated in July 1969.
I did several cover stories, bigger stories, but the main work was rewriting, and rewriting those short stories that are kind of the hallmark of Jet. It's kind of a digest of longer articles, and the whole point was to put in there the most important pieces that would be relevant to black Americans, which meant that there were a lot of choices that had to be made about what would get written about, what wouldn't get written about. Of course, if you were the entertainer or the sports figure or the person or the society figure that was chosen, then it helped to elevate you, push your book if you were an author. So it was a very good place to be.
Moorhus: One of the things that strikes me is that it had a national focus. It was not regional and it was not local at all. You were really working on a national scale.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. Some of the older, more experienced guys did much more traveling than I did, but there's no doubt that I did travel, and it was very much a national publication, and it just gave me incredible exposure. Even now, Mr. Johnson—he was here during the inaugural,* and invited me to their party down there. He still considers me part of the family.
One of the reasons I left was that I still wanted to be a daily newspaper reporter. In my mind, always, was that I wanted to be on a daily, I wanted to work on a newspaper, and I wanted to work on a daily newspaper.
Moorhus: Did you want to do news as opposed to features? Was that a piece of it?
Gilliam: Yes, that was a piece of it. It wasn't that I did not want to do features, but I just wanted to be a part of breaking stories. I didn't want to just rewrite somebody else, and I'm sure that eventually I would have—I've never considered myself the writer I'd like to be. I was always good enough to do it and do it well, but I wasn't this great star writer that, as soon as I came in, the next step they would say, "Hey, we want you to be the editor of Ebony." I had the sense that I would have been doing what I was doing for some time.
So I knew that I wanted to do something else, and also, as I said, Chicago was weighing on me a little bit. I was feeling that it was putting pressure on me to be somebody I couldn't quite be. Also, I felt that at some point I wanted to get married, and it looked like most of the men I was meeting in Chicago were sort of ineligible. At this point, Sam [Gilliam] was—yes, the early part of that, Sam was still in Japan. He did come back part of the time when I was in Chicago, and he came to see me in Chicago, and we still were, as I said, on and off. But it seemed to me that Chicago was overpopulated with married men looking for single girlfriends, or people like my friend Harry, who were nice and real, but nobody I considered a real marriage prospect, and then all these entertainers and these people who were coming through, who kind of wanted to be in the magazine, and I felt they wanted to use me to get in the magazine. So that was another reason I thought I could happily leave Chicago.
But what I started doing, though, was looking around for a graduate school, because I knew that, of course, most of the daily newspapers were white papers. There were almost no black dailies, and I realized that I was going to have to have some white credentials, that graduating from Lincoln was not going to get it, that the bias in the newsrooms kind of discounted a school like Lincoln, or at least devalued it. So I was going to have to go someplace and get a master's at some white school. I considered University of Illinois and made some inquiries there, and Northwestern, with the journalism school [Medill].
* Inauguration of Bill Clinton as President of United States, January 20, 1993.
Then I had heard about the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and that interested me. I was interviewed by a person who lived in Chicago who was a Columbia graduate, and what interested me about Columbia over Northwestern was, one, that it was a one-year course, an intensive, one-year course. I was also interested and attracted by the very practical nature of it—the daily newspaper. We did not spend a lot of time in academic subjects that weren't going to prepare me to go out and get a job. So Columbia was my choice. I applied to Columbia, and I was told that I did not qualify, and I was told I didn't qualify on the basis that I did not have enough liberal arts hours from my time at Lincoln.
Moorhus: What year was that?
Gilliam: The first year I applied was '59, and I was told that I didn't have enough liberal arts hours.
Moorhus: You'd only been in Chicago for a year?
Gilliam: For about a year and a half when I started looking around to go back to school. It was to go in '59, because I know I was at Jet for a total of two years. I went through the interview, but I was told that, as I said, I didn't have the qualifications.
Meanwhile, another friend of mine at Ebony had decided to leave, and he was going down to Tuskegee Institute to head up a new bureau down there called the Information Bureau. It's kind of like a public relations office, but they called it the Information Bureau because it was going to be PR and then it was also going to be a publications center. So when I told him my situation, he said, "Why don't you come down and be my assistant. You can go to Tuskegee and get the liberal arts hours you need to apply to Columbia, so at the same time you'll be working, making money, and you'll be able to go to school and get these hours, because you could take two classes each semester." It was a perfect situation.
Moorhus: And what is his name?
Gilliam: His name is Samuel F. Yette. So that was a perfect solution, so in September of '59, almost two years to the day that I went to Jet, I left. It's funny, Mr. Johnson, when I meet him coming to Washington—he comes and meets the president and all these people—he'll laugh, and he said, "Yes, I remember when you left. You said that you wanted to get married, and all you met in Chicago were married men," and that's all he remembered, I'm sure, of my much more complex reason for leaving and reason for telling him. That's always a little amusing to me. But it had been a real interesting experience at Johnson. I'm just so thankful that I got it, and when I think back on the way it happened and the speed at which I was able go from Lincoln to Memphis to Chicago, I feel extraordinarily blessed, and I've never ever regretted it. I'm very, very thankful for that whole experience.
There were several things about Tuskegee that really fascinated me. The idea of Tuskegee really fascinated me. One was that Tuskegee was in the deep South, and, of course, here again, it was the heart of the civil rights movement, and there was so much activity. Tuskegee was—I'm not sure about this, but maybe forty miles from Montgomery, Alabama, so I knew that I was going to have a chance to go and sit in the congregation of Dr. Martin Luther King [Jr.]. I also felt that, as vicious as the segregation was, I would be somewhat protected, because Tuskegee was an all-black town, in a sense, and so I felt that I would be spared a lot of that daily kind of harshness, because not only was Tuskegee an all-black town, it was a college town. There was so much that was focused on the campus, it attracted people from all over the country and all over
the world, and just as Lincoln had a cadre of very fine teachers in part because during that period black teachers had no other alternative but black schools, a few years in the future, you will have found that there would be a brain-drain in a lot of the black schools. A lot of the people who taught me at Lincoln went on to teach at places like the University of Pennsylvania, and people who taught me at Tuskegee are now at Columbia University. So I was there, in a way, in the heyday of those schools and at the end of those golden periods, because some of those professors would be in immediate demand.
Moorhus: When Columbia University said you weren't qualified, did you have any sense that that was racial at all?
Gilliam: Yes, absolutely. I don't think I had it as strongly then as I had in later years. The other thing that I found out about that whole experience was when Columbia honored me as an Alumni of the Year back in the late seventies, a black professor there did some research in order to nominate me and in order to write the introduction, and one of the things he found in my file was the letter that the person who had interviewed me in Chicago had written. In this letter, this man made the point that I was a very dark-skinned black person, and the implication was that this is not a light-skinned black who could appear to pass or who could ever be mistaken for anything else. It was just such an incredibly racist thing, but that he felt perfectly comfortable putting this in a letter, and I had no notion of that until years later when I was told that this guy had felt it necessary to comment on the shade of my blackness. Those are the kind of things that happened. Was I told that I didn't have enough liberal arts hours simply to dissuade me from coming? One might say.
Moorhus: Or did they discount your education because it was at a historically black college?
Gilliam: My sense was the latter. Whether it was some of both, I suspect it was some of both. I suspect it was some of both. The combination of his going out of his way to describe the shade of my skin and to kind of warn them that if they took me in—you know. He said that I seemed bright and da-dee-da, all of the good things, and then went on to make it very clear to them what they were getting, just in terms of my physical appearance, tells you that they were really in the Dark Ages.
Moorhus: Yes. One of the things that strikes me is that you then went to another black institution to get credits. I wondered if you had considered whether they would take those credits or count them.
Gilliam: I realized that they wouldn't tell me that. They couldn't do that. They couldn't tell me that. They could say that I didn't have enough, but I checked before. I told them that I would be going to Tuskegee, and I would be taking these courses, and I would make sure that I got the requisite, and made sure that this would all be acceptable.
Moorhus: Did they, in effect, promise you that if you got those courses, then they would take you?
Gilliam: Yes. And they also knew where I was going. They couldn't be that—that's actionable, legally. That's actionable.
Moorhus: Except for the difference between Columbia and Northwestern, were you aware of whether you would have gotten admitted to Northwestern?
Gilliam: I don't think I would have been barred from Northwestern. I think part of my situation was those things that I told you, and Columbia was just my preference.
Moorhus: So you went to Tuskegee. Oh, before we get you to Tuskegee, did you experience problems of discrimination in Chicago, which is in the North and as far north as you had ever lived?
Gilliam: I'm not particularly aware of experiencing problems of discrimination in Chicago. Working for a black publication, living in Lake Meadows was at that time, and I think—I'm trying to remember if Lake Meadows was an all black, sort of a middle-class black establishment. They were pretty new, these lovely highrises, as I said, that still exist. I don't know if they were predominantly black or not, but I suspect they were, though. I suspect that they were, because at that point, there were very few blacks living on the North Side. I joined a church, and that was predominantly black. I don't think I had that much interaction with whites. I do remember spending a fair amount of time at some of the clubs, because there was wonderful jazz down there. I remember hearing Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole. I remember Sam coming into Chicago and taking me to some of the clubs, and hearing all these great people.
I suspect that any racism was of the subtle variety, like where you would be seated in a club or a restaurant or that kind of thing. But I'd say much of my world was black, the black kind of upper crust, and so I didn't have that much direct connection. As I said, Mr. Johnson had his own dining room for employees, and his own cooks and all that, so we ate our lunch there in the building. There were a lot of quite well-known places on the South Side, quite well-known restaurants and things, although we did, of course, also go to the North Side for, as I said, primarily music and that kind of thing. I wasn't doing anything to particularly come into contact with whites. I didn't go and fall in love with an apartment on the North Side that I wasn't able to get, or I didn't try to get a job on any of the Chicago papers. I just really felt like I wanted to change from Chicago.
Moorhus: So you go down to Tuskegee. Did you take the train from Chicago to Tuskegee?
Gilliam: I don't remember. I don't remember. And I'm sure I had some trepidation about going south, because Alabama is deep South. The Alabama bus boycott had just ended and King was just beginning his ascendancy. There was still a tremendous amount of racial segregation tension. Mississippi was the heart of it all, but all those black belt states were fairly dangerous places to be. So I'm sure I had trepidation. And did I take the train? I probably did, but I just don't remember. I keep thinking about that trunk. The same trunk that I took to school was the trunk I took just about everywhere else. My sister [Evelyn] and I had gotten some furniture, which I didn't have, of course, until I got to Chicago, but then she got another roommate when I left, so I left pretty much everything that we had gotten together, and when I got to Tuskegee, I found a roommate there.
Moorhus: You had an apartment, then, in Tuskegee?
Gilliam: I shared an apartment with a woman who already lived there. She was a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Her name was Dr. Eleanor Isom, and I became her roommate.
Moorhus: And what courses did you take?
Gilliam: Well, I took some wonderful courses. I took primarily history courses. One of my professors was Dr. Charles B. Hamilton, who is now a professor at Columbia, and who has on
several occasions been named the Outstanding Professor of the Year at Columbia. He's just written a book on Adam Clayton Powell [Jr.],* and when I was at Columbia a couple of years ago, at the Freedom Forum, for the year I had off, he and I got together on more than one occasion, and that was just wonderful. I had his course, and he was a wonderful teacher, just wonderful. So I had primarily courses in history, political science, lots of incredible perspectives once again on African-American history, or American history. Then I had some people who had some wonderful perspectives on American history from a black perspective. Another fantastic teacher I had in addition to Chuck Hamilton was a woman named Dr. Esther Jackson, just a tremendous professor, very powerful in terms of ideas and ability to make those ideas come alive. So most of my courses were in the area of history and political science.
It was really exciting. Because I was a little older than some of the other students and because I was also simultaneously on the staff, I got to know them also as peers—not quite peers, but it certainly added a dimension to the learning. It was also very good working with Sam Yette, who had brought me down, and we did what he thought were some good things in the Information Bureau, primarily coming out with some internal publications and trying to keep Tuskegee on the map.
Tuskegee in itself is a fascinating place—incredible history, of course. Founded by Booker T. Washington, the school is situated on over a hundred acres, a great deal of research in agriculture went on, a huge veterinary department, full-service university, and, again, it attracted people from all over the world, both in terms of student body and in terms of faculty. So here, in kind of the heart of this black belt, surrounded by all of this racism, was this famous institution of learning. It was the home of a very well-known scientist named Dr. George Washington Carver, who did a lot of experiments with the sweet potato and the peanut that helped revolutionize the Southern economy and all of this, so it has a very rich history. It also was the home of what they call the Tuskegee Airmen, this very famous group of pilots who served in World War I and II when there were all-black regiments. There have been movies and books made of the Tuskegee Airmen. It had a wonderful choir, and just a place sort of reeking with history. But in addition to all the fine things, it still had a number of limitations. Once you left the environs of Tuskegee, you felt very vulnerable.
One of the major experiences I had was going to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery to hear Reverend King. Sam Yette and I were talking about this not long ago.
Moorhus: Is he still at Tuskegee?
Gilliam: No, he's here in Washington. He left after a few years and came to Washington, and taught at Howard University, worked for Newsweek magazine, worked for the government, worked for the Peace Corps, so he's had a variety of things. Now he has a small publishing company.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Moorhus: You were excited to go hear Dr. King.
* Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972). Minister in a Harlem, New York City church (1937-71), served in the U.S. House of Representatives (1945-67, 1969-70).
Gilliam: That was one of the things that really excited me about going to Tuskegee, one of the many things, that I would be able to, not as a reporter or observer, but just as a congregant, be able to drive up there on some Sundays and hear Dr. King. It was just an absolutely stunning experience. The church was very full. I'm sure I went more than once, but I just happen to remember this—it must have been one of the early times. Once the pews were filled, they had folding chairs that they would put in the aisles, and somehow, though, it seemed to me that I started on a folding chair, but I ended up on a pew, and I don't quite know how that happened, and I cannot remember the title of the sermon. I just remembered, and Sam said that he can still remember my excitement and my overflowing emotions at being there. By that time, of course, they had won the Montgomery bus boycott, and so they had succeeded in integrating the buses. This little band of people who dared the system had started a revolution.
Certainly there were other things happening. There was the work of Thurgood Marshall* and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and there were other assaults on the legal system, but certainly the movement that launched Martin Luther King was a very key part of so much that was going on. So it was very exciting to be there and to hear him preach. I know there were other occasions, but that was part of the wonder.
Moorhus: Did you write about that? Did you write about the kinds of experiences you were having?
Gilliam: Not really, because we were sort of doing internal publications. I wasn't writing for another publication. It was more of a time when I was just experiencing things, and there would be those periods in my life, and I can remember being kind of happy to be out of the observer/writer role, and occasionally just experiencing a situation, and that's what that felt like. Those were the highlights of being in Tuskegee—my school work and working.
Moorhus: Did you have experiences of confronting segregation in a different way down there than you had previously?
Gilliam: Let me think about that a little bit. [Pause.]
Moorhus: I was wondering, since you were aware of some reservations about going to the deep South, whether there was anything that happened down there that was particularly distressing or confrontational.
Gilliam: I'm sure there were things that happened, even though we were, as I said, people who lived fairly circumscribed lives, because they knew how to avoid problems, and because the town proper, which sort of had everything—you had everything come in there—I would have more of my more overt brushes with segregation and police and all that once I was actually out covering things. But that was not my role there, and I think I was more concerned with playing it safe in the sense of following the rules. I think partly I was kind of concentrating on the next thing as well. I was concentrating on getting these hours, going to Columbia, getting a job. Tuskegee was kind of a means to an end, and so between working and then the school and then the classes and the studying, there wasn't a lot of time. I was trying to think—I was dating this man on the faculty down there, and I was trying to think—it seems to me that even the places we knew that
* Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), chief of legal staff of NAACP (1940-61); U.S. solicitor general (1965-67); appointed associate justice of U.S. Supreme Court, 1967.
you would go to for recreation were black places. They were different places that were off campus, but you knew the circumscribed places.
I just don't have any memory of any great things happening, but I know there were all kind of instances of discrimination that just went around this all the time, but there was a certain kind of protective atmosphere of the school and of the students, and it's just like this school had coexisted down there for scores of years, and so you didn't have to come into contact with whites unless you really did something or got in the way of some of this stuff.
Moorhus: You left Tuskegee, then, to go to Columbia, right?
Moorhus: Did you have to reapply, or was your admission pretty much set then?
Gilliam: I think I formally reapplied, but there was little question that I would be accepted into the class of 1960.
Moorhus: Did you have any reservations about going to New York?
Gilliam: Not really. I was looking forward to it. I'd never lived in New York. The only time I had been to New York was on this one trip when I was at Ebony. I was very excited about going, and so I called the society editor who lived in New York and told her I was coming and asked if she would arrange something for me. I flew to New York from Chicago, and I just knew that she was going to take me to this big club or some of these places that you'd read about, and she took me to Coney Island. [Laughter.] I was just devastated. I could not believe it, and I still can't. I told somebody she took me to Coney Island and she tried to kill me. [Laughter.] These rides—there was some kind of ride where you just stand up straight, and you seem to be just buckled in, and I was whirring around New York City with arms akimbo. So I was really looking forward to going to New York under somewhat different circumstances, and hopefully getting a little more of the glamour or whatever.
At any rate, I had arranged to get a place at International House, and that was a perfect location. It was within walking distance of Columbia and just a wonderful setting right there on Riverside. Then, of course, you met people from all over the world and all that business. So that worked out very, very well. It was really frightening for me in so many ways, when I think about it. There were two blacks in our class. I think I showed you the picture of our graduating class at Columbia.
Moorhus: No, I don't think I saw that one. But we'll get that.
Gilliam: Somebody asked if I was the first black woman at Columbia, and I said, "I don't know." There may have been somebody else, but there hadn't been that many of us. I don't know what the token number was, or what the quota of blacks was—if it was two or what.
Moorhus: Was it two out of a hundred?
Gilliam: It was two out of about eighty-five, and usually we also felt that there was a quota of women, probably no more than fifteen of the eighty-five.
Moorhus: And the other black was a man?
Gilliam: Yes. Columbia was pretty overwhelming for me at first. It was a very different kind of situation. I had been at Ursuline in a white setting, but as I said, once again, I would go home every night, and it was all women, and it was taught by nuns, and it was not as high powered. This class attracted people from all over the country, so many different levels of experience and knowledge and background, and so much variety in their exposure. People had traveled to Europe, and had a much wider exposure than I had. Thank God I had had the work at Jet and had done some of the work when I was at the weekly Defender and some things, so that I wasn't totally green. But by comparison to a lot of these people who were just—a lot of them were very well connected. Not all, of course, but there were a lot of very wealthy people there. One of the people who, incidentally, became a friend of mine who was in my class was Jackie Kennedy's half sister [Nina Auchincloss Steers Straight]. There was a man there who, I believe, had been the editor of a paper in a small town for some time, and I could never quite figure out why he was there. A lot of them were people in my age range or older. I was twenty-four—no, I was twenty-three, rather, when I arrived. So there were people who were that age as well, but there were also people who were thirty and over.
So it was a wide mix, and I felt that I had a lot of catching up to do, because in many ways it was really making kind of a cultural leap, and I think I became aware of how much more exposure some of these young people had had. Blacks have always had to be bicultural in a sense, but it's never been two-way. We've had to know about the general culture, but I realized that as much as I thought I knew, they knew so much more about the general culture. Of course, they didn't know anything about my culture, but they didn't have to. So that was their advantage, but by comparison, I didn't look as well versed in their culture, which I was expected to be—not in their culture, the more shared culture, but certainly I didn't grow up with the kind of references and stuff that they did. So it was quite an adventure, and quite difficult at times. I remember one of the professors. John Hohenberg looked at me and he said, "You know, you've got so many handicaps, you'll probably make it."
Moorhus: What a strange thing to say.
Gilliam: I know, but he was right. It was that sense that you're not only black, but you're a woman, and he just saw them as handicaps. And he was right in the sense of where the journalism business was in 1960 and '61, and in many ways where Columbia was. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: Let's go back to your being in New York. What do you remember about the classes as well as the living and social situation?
Gilliam: Basically, the classes at Columbia were nine-to-five every day, so they were long, intense days. We put out a newspaper. We took turns as editors and picture editors. We learned to take pictures. We covered New York the way reporters covered New York. We covered some of the same stories that the New York Times, the Post, at that time the Herald, the New York Daily News—we were there, and I think that all the reporters just got accustomed to seeing the Columbia kids there. I doubt if they called us "kids" under those circumstances.
One of the stories I remember covering was Winston Churchill, from a distance. He came to New York, and I don't think he ever got off his yacht, but we covered that story. We covered the United Nations. The whole city was our beat, and it was a great way to learn the business, because, once again, we were writing on deadline. A lot of the professors were active journalists, a lot of New York Times reporters there.
Not long ago, I saw one of those people who was one of my teachers, and she's still active as a copy editor, as a matter of fact, and she's one of the people in this book Girls in the Balcony.* Her name is Betsy Wade, and she was reminding me, she said, "You were always pushing the limits." I was surprised to hear her say that, because that was not my sense of myself. I felt very much overwhelmed at times and trying to keep my head above water. But she had a somewhat different view.
Moorhus: What did she mean by that, do you think?
Gilliam: Well, I think she meant that I was always questioning. I'm sure I had racial issues very much on my mind. I'm sure I had racial injustice very much on my mind. I do not remember being that outspoken about it, because, certainly in those early days, I was still figuring out who I was and trying to just be a good student and make it through, and trying to learn and be as good as the people sitting around me. So I don't remember being a great firebrand, but that was her memory.
I remember I wrote my thesis on [Patrice] Lumumba* of the Congo, so I know that my interests, even there, were on some of the movement of black people in the world. In the early sixties, as you know, that was a time when [John F.] Kennedy was elected [president of the U.S.], it was the beginning of the African independence movements. Lumumba was one of the first African heads of state and one of the first Africans to—Congo is one of the first countries to throw off the yoke of colonialism, so it was an exciting time historically. I wanted to write about Lumumba and his struggle against the Belgians, and that was what I wrote my master's thesis on. That was an incredibly grueling experience.
In many ways, New York was just a wonderful time for me. I had probably my only interracial romance of any substance during that time, and people who know me now can hardly believe that I had an interracial romance. I have a good friend who was my friend and sort of helped to steer me through all that, and she's still a very good friend of mine. It was a man I met at International House, and he was from Germany. I was totally unwilling to have anything to do with this man. My friend said, "Well, if you realize that this is going to be something that's going to be only here and now, if you don't expect anything from this, don't get your heart set on going to Germany with him or his staying here, this is one of these events that's for now." She was having an affair, a college romance, as you say, with a man from Belgium, and it's the same situation. She said, "If you're willing to do this, you can have a wonderful year."
Moorhus: Is she also black?
Gilliam: Oh, yes. Yes.
Moorhus: So that was also an interracial as well as international romance?
* Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men and the New York Times by Nan Robertson, Random House 1992.
*Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) - first prime minister of Congo in July 1960; in power only eleven weeks; murdered 17 January 1961.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. They all lived at International House, we all lived at International House together, and so we just had some incredible times. We did things together. I mean, I went to the beach for the first time. I was twenty-three before I ever saw the ocean. We all piled in somebody's car and went out to Jones Beach one night. I had never done things like ice skating, and groups of us would go, and because I couldn't ice skate, they'd put me in the middle, and about eight would get on each side of me, and we would manage to ice skate in the park. There were just all kind of things that didn't cost very much, but I realized how limited my fun had been when I saw the kind of things that people did and enjoyed. The guys were at different schools. My girlfriend was at Fordham [University], I was at Columbia. The guys were studying advanced business, and they were at various schools around there. I don't even remember what schools they were at now. It was a time of getting introduced to a lot of different things, and just a very good and exciting time in many ways.
Moorhus: Did you go back to Louisville at all during that year?
Gilliam: I went back for Christmas, I think. I know I didn't go back for Thanksgiving, because I spent Thanksgiving with a family in New York, but I believe I went back for Christmas, if I'm not mistaken. Money, of course, was always a factor. It's one of the things I had been doing when I was working at Tuskegee, saving money for school. I also got a couple of scholarships, but still it was very expensive.
Moorhus: Did you have to work while you were in New York?
Gilliam: That I just couldn't do. You just couldn't go to Columbia and work, or at least I couldn't, so I didn't. But luckily, I had been able to save. Columbia was hard. It was a real challenging situation. It was hard being a minority. Being a black and a woman, having that double burden, was hard. I had some friends at International House who helped to give me the kind of cultural nurturing that I needed. I made some very good friends at Columbia. One friend is still one of my best friends right now, a Jewish woman from New York who lives here now—Merle Goldberg. I met her at Columbia. She was real close then, and we got to know each other because everything was alphabetical, and so Gilliam and Goldberg.
Moorhus: Were you married? You said Gilliam.
Gilliam: You're right. No, I wasn't married. So it wasn't that. Why did we think that? That's right, I wasn't. And she said that, and I didn't even know. So maybe that weren't many Ds, Es, Fs, because I was Dorothy Butler.
Gilliam: But I remember she said, "Remember, we used to always sit together because of our names?" And I would say, "Yeah," and I was thinking Gilliam and Goldberg. That's funny. That is funny. But at any rate, that seemed to have thrown us together.
Moorhus: Something threw you together.
Gilliam: Yes, but we'd apparently sat relatively close together. But she was just a marvel to me. There was another Jewish woman there who I got to be friendly with—Marian Elias. The cultural thing was just amazing to me, because I had never heard anybody show such disrespect for their parents. These girls talked about their mothers like they were dogs, and I had just never—it was just amazing to me. My mother was something. We just venerated our mother, and you just
showed your mother all this respect, and I just knew that her mother had tails and a horn. I just knew it. There was nothing else that could fit this description. And the same thing with Marian. Marian came from Michigan, and they talked about their mothers. I thought, "Who are these monsters, these women?" I used to tell them, "We don't talk about our mothers like that." And they said, "Oh, your mother couldn't be like mine," and they'd go on and on and on and on. After a while, it was hysterical. It was just funny.
Moorhus: And did you ever meet their mothers?
Gilliam: I did, I did. Of course, she'd said her mother was the world's biggest bigot and all this. I met her mother, and then this probably shouldn't go in the tape.
Moorhus: Okay. Shall we turn it off for a minute?
Gilliam: Yes. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: Well, you did finally meet her parents, and her mother did not have a tail and horns.
Gilliam: Did not have tails, no. And so I sometimes even now tease her about that, and she's much friendlier with her mother now. But it wasn't just Merle. As I said, it was Marian, too, and we talked about these cultural differences in the way people perceive their parents. Part of it was, their parents were people and they just talked about it. It took me a long time to get to a more—it just didn't happen. It just wasn't a part of our culture. But both women were very helpful to me in navigating all those great cultural divides and helping to demystify some of this process. We were under constant pressure with the deadlines and all of that, so they were very helpful to me.
I made several good friends among the class at Columbia, as I said, among them Nina Auchincloss Steers Straight, who to this day, we still try to see each other a couple of times a year. Another woman was Carol Foley out of Boston, and several people who really turned out to be friends and associates. One of the women in my class is now the dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
So with all the difficulties involved as I was going through it, when I look back, in many ways it really was a very seminal experience for me. My romance came to a very tearful end at the end of the year. But never to be down for long, I went off to Africa that summer, and I was going to see Tom Mboya, the one I'd met in Chicago several years before.
What happened was, I heard of this program called Operation Crossroads Africa. It's a program that many people consider the precursor to the Peace Corps. Basically, the MO [modus operandi] was to take a group of American students and pair them with an equal group of African students, and we did work projects in the summer. A man named Reverend James Robinson, who lived in Harlem, realized that the way to foster lasting friendships was not to go and question people or to be separate from them, but to live together and work together. That program had been going on several years. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship from the African-American Institute for Operation Crossroads. They had relatively few black students, primarily because of the cost, because the students paid their own way. I was able to get some combination of scholarships.
By then Sam was back. We still were not really quite together. He was dating other people, I was dating other people. But I remember he loaned me some money so that I could go to Africa. It wasn't a lot, it was a couple hundred dollars, but it really helped on that trip. I believe
some of the people at my church sent me some money, still these little folded dollars that just represented so much love and caring. My mother did what she could, and it's just always been that sense of support. I think about it now, that it must have been something for my mother to have this daughter who was getting ready to go off to Africa. My mother at that point had never probably been much further than New York, but she was always supportive of anything I wanted to do. That was another typical thing, where she said she just prayed for me, and all she wanted was to make sure that I wrote on a regular basis so that she'd know that things were going well.
Moorhus: But you got your degree before you left?
Gilliam: I got my degree before I left, and my mother and my sister came up for graduation, so that was very exciting.
Moorhus: Juanita or Evelyn?
Gilliam: Evelyn. They were very, very thrilled at my graduating and getting my master's. I'm not sure whether I went home or not. I may not have gone to Louisville between graduation and leaving for Africa. I don't quite remember.
One of the things that happened before I graduated was that I was interviewed by the Washington Post. One of the positives about Columbia is that it's a good employment agency. Many, many people come in and interviewed the students, so I had interviewed with the Post. My whole reason for going to Columbia was to get on a daily newspaper. I had interviewed with several places, and the guy at the Post was the city editor, Ben Gilbert, and after he'd interviewed me, he wrote me a letter that was very, very different from the letter that I had received a few years earlier from the Louisville Times and from the paper in Indiana. He said they really were interested, he thought I needed more experience, I should try to get a job in the boondocks for a couple of years, and then be back in touch. He said, "But if you ever happen to be in Washington, come by and meet our managing editor, Al Friendly."
It just happened that for Operation Crossroads, the orientation was going to be in Washington, before we went to our destination and I was bound for Kenya. So I decided to take him up on his interest. I got to town and I called him and told him I was in town, and he said, "Why don't you come by and meet the managing editor?" So I did. I got a foretaste of Washington, because we were meeting right over here at the Washington Cathedral. In our group there were eighteen of us, and there were three blacks. I was trying to get a cab on Wisconsin Avenue to go to the Post, since I didn't know anything about the city, and I must have gotten passed by by a hundred cabs before I finally got one. I mean, Washington in the early sixties was a real segregated city.
At any rate, I went down to the Post, and I met Al Friendly, and then I met Russ Wiggins. Wiggins was the editor, and Al Friendly was the managing editor. Ben Gilbert was the city editor. Al Friendly said, "Well, what brings you to Washington?" And I said, "I'm on my way to Africa." And he said, "Oh, that's very interesting. Why are going?" and all that, and I explained to him why I was going. He said, "Why don't you write something for us?" And I said, "Sure." We talked about the kind of pieces he would want.
I just remembered, I did go home before going to Africa, because I had also gone to the Louisville Courier Journal and told them about going to Africa, and they also said, "Why don't you write us a story." You know, first person, "Louisville girl goes to Africa" kind of thing. So I was pretty busy once I got to Kenya, writing, doing all this freelance work. I wrote stuff for
the Louisville Times, which they published, complete with pictures and all of that. I don't believe the Post ever published the stuff I sent them, but I think it gave them an idea about my writing ability.
And when I got back—I can talk about Africa later—but when I got back to the States after I came through New York—I stayed in New York a few days—and then I went on back to Louisville, trying to get myself a job, and I got the call from the Post. I got back in September, and the Post called in late September or early October, in effect saying, "We think we'll give you a chance as a general assignment reporter."
Interestingly enough, the Times and Courier were making vague little noises like "maybe, maybe," the creaking wheel, maybe—but nothing definite at all. But I was very happy to come to the Washington Post. It was just what I wanted—a chance to be in another city, in Washington, and as a reporter. I got out my old trunk again, packed it up, and in October of '61, I headed to Washington.
Moorhus: What kind of salary did they offer you?
Gilliam: You know, I don't remember. My sense is it was $100 a week or something like this. I don't remember. But my usual pattern when I came to a new city was to live at the YWCA. It was usually downtown and safe and well located, and you could also eat there. That's what I had done in Memphis. That's the same thing I did in Washington when I came. But I don't remember the salary. I started immediately making inquiries. I contacted the people at Johnson Publishing Company here, and they were able to put me in touch with some other people, and I was able to find a roommate and move into an apartment. Later, I moved into a house; I had a room in a person's house.
What was happening that year after I got back, I was about moving to the point that I was going to accept Sam's marriage proposal that had been out there for about seven years. So shortly after I got here and got settled, and by then we had, as I said, resumed our relationship. We did decide to get married, so much of that first year was consumed with working for the Post and planning the marriage. I was going to get married back home, and get married at my father's church, of course. So that was what that whole first year was about.
Moorhus: A very big first year. Do you want to talk about the trip to Africa at this point?
Gilliam: Yes, I think it makes sense. The trip to Africa was very emotional in many, many ways. First of all, I had never, as a black person, been to a place where I saw that many blacks in positions of responsibility, not so much in Kenya, but in Nigeria. The first place our plane landed was Nigeria, and everybody I saw doing everything was black. I just had never seen that, and that was just extraordinarily impressive to me—all the police officers, the people who worked in the airport. So it was another kind of awakening, because one of the ways that segregation worked was this whole sense, really, that you just couldn't quite do it, and even though we had all of this counterwork being done with me—although I had all this counterwork being done with me since I was a kid about "You can, you can," and clearly I believed that, because I was doing, and opening these new doors and just moving and just withstanding all the difficulties, there's still always somewhere this little voice, I guess. I was reminded of that when reading Fannie Lou Hamer's* book,
* Fannie Lou Hamer (b. 1917) - field worker and head of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-1977); helped found Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
where she talked about when she—I mean, this is a Mississippi woman who didn't vote until she was in her forties—but she talked about how her first trip to Africa was just so incredible to her, because she was able to see black people, that she knew that black people could do anything and everything, and she'd always been told that that was not the case. And mine, on a different scale, was that same way. I was a lot younger, and I hadn't been beaten down as much as she was. But that was very, very exciting to me. In a sense, I guess, I had the somewhat romantic idea that I was going back to my roots. It was the early sixties, so the whole black consciousness movement hadn't happened, but it was still very, very exciting for me.
Interestingly enough, there were several hundred of us going to Africa all together, and what happened was that we flew here, came for orientation in Washington—
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Moorhus: You were saying that seeing blacks in positions of authority upset some of the whites?
Gilliam: Some of the white people in the group had to be sent back home, because they couldn't take the culture shock of an all-black country. It's very interesting how the reverse psychology worked for some people. They thought they wanted to do it, but the reality was too much.
Moorhus: It was just overwhelming.
Gilliam: It was overwhelming. We were in Nigeria a couple of weeks, and then went on to Kenya. Our group was about eighteen or twenty. There's a book somewhere on my shelf about Operation Crossroads, and one chapter talks about our group in Kenya. Kenya in the early sixties was a quite extraordinary place. It was still, at that point, the favorite colony of white English people. Kenya is incredibly beautiful. It has an altitude of about six thousand feet. The weather is the most temperate in Africa. The whites lived in something they called the White Highlands, which were the most beautiful parts of Kenya, primarily on estates. The blacks still lived in tribal situations, in many cases.
What had happened in the late fifties, the leader of the independence movement in Kenya was Jomo Kenyatta,* and Kenyatta had led something called the Mau Mau, in which they had perpetrated a lot of acts of violence on whites. Kenyatta had been, for some years—first of all, he was banned, then he was jailed, and the summer we were there, the summer of 1961, Kenyatta was to be released from jail after many years, and Kenya was on the verge of independence. The actual formal independence would not come for two years, but these were the first steps toward independence, and the actual date had been set. So we were really there as we saw the end of the Brits' reign and the beginning of independence.
I have a couple of pictures in here that I'll show you at some point, of me and another woman in our group as we arrived in Kenya. Frankly, as I said, one of the reasons I was interested in Africa and in Kenya was this leader, Tom Mboya. [Referring to photograph.] Here I am, and this woman was the wife of one of the African leaders, and this young lady was a member of our Operations Crossroads. She was a student at Harvard.
* Jomo Kenyatta (1897-1978) - imprisoned and sentenced on 8 April 1953 to seven years hard labor; after completing sentence, he was still confined until freed 22 August 1961. Became prime minister of self-governing Kenya on 1 June 1963, and President of Republic of Kenya on 12 December 1964.
Moorhus: Nice picture. So you were interested in the possible relationship or continuing—
Gilliam: Yes, that was another part of the attraction—just going to see what—
Moorhus: What did happen?
Gilliam: Well, I certainly saw him many times. I realized somewhat my naivete, because this man certainly had—I mean, given his very huge political ambitions, there was no possibility of his getting very involved with any American, given the realities of even tribal warfare over there. There was no serious reason to believe that he was going to do anything other than marry a woman who was African and somebody who was the right person for his career. He ended up marrying a fellow Luo some years later. Reality also hit in terms of other women and all kind of things. So it was a very—that was disappointing.
Moorhus: An eye-opening experience in a number of ways.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. But it was okay, because there were just so many other things that happened that were so wonderful, and if that is what it took to get me to Africa, and it was so important to have done that, and to have had that experience at that early stage in my career, before I actually started the Washington Post and these incredibly difficult corporate settings, where you really were going to be called upon so often to have a good sense of self. It's that sense of self that was going to take you through those difficult times. Each of these experiences that deepened my awareness of who I was, that made me stronger to withstand all those real slings and arrows and realities of what it was like to be a black woman in a white newsroom.
Moorhus: What kinds of activities did you do in Africa?
Gilliam: We built a road. Our project was to—it was actually a long driveway, but basically we built a road leading to a children's hospital, and we stayed in tents. Our first project took place outside Nairobi. Nairobi was where Tom [Mboya] was and all the politicians. It was the capital. We stayed, as I said, about seven or eight miles out of town. We stayed in tents.
We stayed with an equal group of Africans. A lot of the kids in our group, as I said, there were nineteen or twenty of them, there was three blacks, our leader was black, a professor out of Atlanta. The kids, I'd say, were predominantly from Harvard and Radcliffe in our group, and there were a lot of cultural problems that arose. For instance, some of the kids in our group felt that the Africans weren't working hard enough. It was good to be able to see what was going on and to say, "Look at you. How many vitamins have you taken since day one? You sit down and drink a quart of milk at a meal. You're looking at people who haven't had—they don't have the same stamina and the same energy that you have or that we have." It was good to be there, to be able to see how some people's stereotypes kind of play out, and the fact that sometimes there's a basis in reality, but there's an explanation for the reality in cases like this.
But it really was a marvelous experience in many ways—frightening, frustrating, angry-making. I can remember being—it was two others and me. We were trying to hitchhike into town once, and all these white settlers, who were the only ones who had cars at that point, except for the politicians—they would see the two white people, and they would slow down, and they'd see me, and they'd keep going, and they said, "We can't pick her up." There was still that same mentality among a lot of the people there, because you basically still had the old segregated situation. Those were real difficult moments, to be in a black country and to be treated like that.
And that's one of the instances that this woman writes about in this book, when I recounted my frustration at being passed by on the roads.
Moorhus: Sort of like being passed by the cabs on Wisconsin Avenue.
Gilliam: Yes, but this time, after having been so thrilled with blacks in Nigeria, where you had a predominantly black country, and blacks running it, you come to Kenya, and it was like a little England. Yet it was in Africa.
Moorhus: Did you get into the homes of any of the local people?
Gilliam: Yes, I got into the homes of some. I said we built a road leading to a children's hospital. The person who was the doctor there, a Dr. Mungai Njorge, he was quite well off. I think he had been educated either in the U.S. or in England and was a medical doctor and quite well regarded. He had quite a nice home. Also I was in Tom's home. It was not particularly palatial at all. He at this time was still basically a trade unionist, balancing all these really difficult politics. I got in the home of one of the white people, which was quite palatial. They lived very, very well, and I'm trying to remember who that was and why I was there, but it was with some of the other young people from Operation Crossroads.
Moorhus: An official function or something?
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. One of the nice things about the summer was the excitement of the people about the approaching independence. Every time you'd be riding along or whatever, people would always raise up their hands, and they'd say, "Uhuru, uhuru," and that was for independence—freedom. "Uhuru" is "Freedom now." So there was this enormous sense of excitement that freedom was coming, and that there was going to be change, and of course, there's so many things that have happened with that change. And, of course, I always think that in this country, when we look at what's happening in the African countries, we don't remember how long it took this country to get to some point before it settled down into a workable situation, the turmoil that many of these countries have gone through, and it is sad, there's no doubt about it. But I think we have to realize that all new countries go through certain periods, and given colonialism and the poverty-stricken way in which many of these countries were left, they had been stripped of a lot of their natural resources.
At any rate, the big thing that summer, in addition to the excitement of the people about approaching independence, was that Jomo Kenyatta was going to be released from detention. There had been a build-up all summer about that. There also was a build-up of—there was a constant hint of danger around politicians and around politics. I remember a couple of us went out with Dr. Njorge once, and he took us to some of the outlying areas and outlying territories, and there would be roadblocks, police roadblocks, at certain places, just a constant feeling of danger and potential problems, fear.
But in August of 1961, finally the word came down that Kenyatta was going to be freed. He had a home in a place called Gatundu, so he was going to be released to his place, and a couple of us—in fact, the young lady whose picture I showed you and me—we were somehow able to wrangle our way to be inside the compound, because we were going to try to help. We said we wanted to help do things like unpack the dishes for the house, because the house hadn't been occupied. I don't know where Kenyatta's wife had been, but at any rate, finally he was going to be able to come home.
So the day he was released, we were inside the compound, and I will never forget the incredible excitement—when I say remember it all—he was like a god, almost, to these people, because he was the man who had been the father of independence. He had accomplished this incredible thing of restoring their country to them. For days before he was to be released, people began to line up on the roads leading to his house. They were camping out, sleeping on the side of the road. They just wanted to be there to get a glimpse as he drove through. The roads leading up to Gatundu were just packed, and we were able, I guess because we were Americans, we were able to accomplish this incredible feat of being on the inside of the compound when he arrived. There was Dr. Njorge and all these people and Mboya and all these people together. But it was just the most incredible day.
There is a greeting that the Kenyan women have, and I don't think it was any particular—the most dominant tribe in the Kenyans is the Kikuyu, and then the tribe of lesser size was the Luo, and Mboya was a Luo. But there was a sound, a guttural kind of sound, that they have. I can't really emulate it. [Demonstrates.] That's a cry of joy, and just comes from deep and gets real high. I had been given that greeting once when I—in fact, I think it was Emily and I. We ended up running around a lot together that summer.
Moorhus: She's the girl in the picture from Harvard?
Gilliam: Yes. Emily Schraeder was her name. We were visiting some villages, and I believe we were with Dr. Njorge, and the women had given us that welcome. People were just incredibly welcoming and kind, especially if you come with somebody they know and respect. So that had always been very special. But the day that Kenyatta was released, the sounds were just never-ceasing. They just rolled around the countryside, almost like something visible, as these women just chanted and just gave these greetings.
Finally, after all the excitement and all this, he finally rode up in his car down the roads, and when he got there, we were among the crowd. There were quite a few people inside the compound, but just to get close enough to see him and to shake his hand. I think we were working in the kitchen, so we really were not in any kind of great position of authority or anything, or visibility.
Moorhus: But you were there.
Gilliam: Yes, just being there and being that close was really something. So the trip to Africa had its low points and its high points, and certainly was one of those, as I said, one of those seminal experiences.
Leaving Kenya, we came back through Ethiopia, and once again, our status as Americans got us into some special places. We were going to have an audience with Emperor Haile Selassie.* Again, we were in the closing days of all of these empires, the closing days of some and the opening days of others, as a matter of fact. What's most striking about Ethiopia, and one of the reasons I can understand some of the incredible turmoil that came in later years, was that the class system there was such that there was a very small percentage of very rich Ethiopians, and a huge percentage of poor ones. Haile Selassie was so venerated, that even though there was protest and revolting from this incredibly inequitable distribution of the wealth, things were kept pretty much
* Emperor Haile Selassie - ascended 1930, deposed 12 September 1974.
under control. The rich people pretty much had to guard themselves—their compounds, their lives, their children—all the time, but they had plenty of money to hire plenty of guards.
We, in our eager American ways, got to the palace to see the emperor early, and the guns that were used to guard the palace at night had not been put away, and we got there, and we just saw all these guns. It was very clear that that country couldn't have survived in that kind of armed, unequal state forever. Certainly, as Haile Selassie started, and I mean after his death, it was clear that something had to happen, and, of course, you eventually had the Marxist takeover. But like most problems, they often are brewing for many years before there is an explosion or a resolution of some kind. But, of course, Ethiopia just ended particularly tragically—victim of the Cold War, victim of its own internal follies and problems. But it was kind of an exciting climax to that trip to Africa. We left Ethiopia and came back through Nigeria, and then finally came back to the U.S.
Moorhus: Did you bring things back with you?
Gilliam: Some things, yes. One thing I brought back was that fly whisk over there, which I got from Kenyatta, from inside the compound. He always carried a fly whisk, which was a symbol of authority. It also had a very practical use, brushing away the flies. I brought back some things, but I didn't have the money to really bring back a lot. Much of the African pieces I've gotten, and, of course, my interest in Africa and collecting African art with small pieces I have, goes back to those early times. But I was a very poor student, and really just had almost nothing. I wasn't able to buy very much. But I did bring back some things, some fabrics and things for my mother, and I'm sure I brought some things back for Sam, who had loaned me the great $200. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Okay, we will quit for tonight and start at the Post next time.
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