[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: We'll start this evening with the Washington Post and getting you here. Take it from here.
Gilliam: I was very excited about coming to Washington. When I got back to Louisville from Africa and had the word from the Post, when I began to get calls, etc., from the Post about my possibly coming, I was very excited—the idea of leaving home definitely was it after New York, being able to get a job. I must say I don't think I quite understood the full significance of the Washington Post, even though in the early sixties, clearly it was not the paper it is today, but it was still a very significant newspaper. I was very happy and challenged to be working on a predominantly white newspaper in a metropolitan big city. So it was a time of a lot of anticipation.
Washington, when I arrived in 1961, was a very country town, and I guess the word "country" is not quite accurate, but it was like a segregated Southern town. I remember packing my trusty trunk in Louisville, which had taken me so many places, and the first place I lived [here] was the YWCA. After a short time, I was able, through friends from Johnson Publishing Company, I had worked for Johnson Publishing Company at Jet magazine in the late fifties, so I had some friends and acquaintances, and I was able to share an apartment with a woman who lived on Capitol Hill. So after a few weeks at the Y, I was able to settle down in more comfortable surroundings.
I can still remember writing my mother about the total awe and sort of romanticism of taking—at that time they still had streetcars—taking the streetcar from the Post to Capitol Hill. I just remember this route around the Capitol was magnificent, and it was also quite awe-inspiring. So I was kind of starting a life as a single woman in Washington.
Moorhus: What was the Post like as a working environment?
Gilliam: The Post, for me, was very difficult. How do I describe it as a working environment? From my perspective as an African-American woman, I understand that I was the first African-American woman reporter that the Post had hired. When I arrived there, there were two other black reporters. I'm sure at that time we were all called Negroes. But there were two other black or African-American reporters. One was a man named Luther Jackson, Luther P. Jackson, Jr., and another was a man named Wallace Terry. Luther was older than both Wally and I. I guess Wally and I were roughly the same age. I was twenty-four, and Wally may have been a couple of years, two or three years older. I don't know. But it was a place that was very kind of overwhelmingly white male and relatively few women. There were certainly women there, but my memory is that the women who were there certainly were not the kinds of women you have in newsrooms today, in the sense where you have women who are in active numbers, pursuing their career, having children and families. I don't know of any woman in the newsroom—I don't know about the women's section (that's what it was called in those days)—who really had any children.
I know there were a couple of women who were married and who didn't have children. There were a few single women.
The city editor was the gentleman who hired me, whose name was Ben Gilbert. He was a person who was very supportive of me and went out of his way to really make me feel at home and, in fact, made certain that I was invited to his home, and has been a lifelong friend, has become a lifelong friend both to me and my family, both he and his wife Maureen. It's very interesting, because if you talk to some other reporters who were there, they have some horror stories to tell about Ben Gilbert. I don't know if the difference was my age, the fact that by then he was perhaps mellowing a little bit. He had been the city editor, when I got there for, for probably twenty years. He was certainly known as the quintessential, almost stereotypical, crotchety newsman, but I found him really supportive and a man with great racial sensitivity. So that was a positive.
You have to picture Washington in those days, a town absolutely very, very segregated, where you still had the Southern element in Congress, where the city was very much like two cities—the official city, which was all white, and the city where the residents lived, which, starting even as early as the sixties, was becoming predominantly black, but not yet at that point. The percentage has shifted. But certainly there was a wide chasm between those two "cities."
As a working environment, the Post was very much the leading newspaper, very much an elitist newspaper, in a sense. When I arrived at the Post, the publisher was Phillip Graham. He was a man about whom, of course, a great deal has been written and a great many aspects of his personality, his life, and his tragic death have been written about.* But from my perspective, he was a person who was very kind to me. He was not a person that I had a great deal of contact with, but he was somebody who—I still have memories of his occasionally coming and perching on my desk and just saying, "How are you doing? How's it going?" There was a friendliness and an outgoing quality that he had, and that in itself was very, very nice for a young reporter.
The reason the Post was so hard for me—there were several reasons. One was that the segregation of the city just made it difficult to do my job. It was just almost impossible to get taxicabs. I can remember standing out on corners and waving and waving. You know, they just saw a black woman and they just assumed that I was either going to far Southeast, and taxi drivers have never liked to go Southeast. They say it's not economically feasible. I mean, there are all kinds of reasons. I know as a black women it was extraordinarily hard for me just to move around and do my job. I can remember standing on street corners and just crying, you know, just totally frustrated because often the deadline would be ticking away, and cabs are just whizzing past me.
The other aspect of that was that race was just not something you discussed, and the problems, so that I couldn't come back in the newsroom and tell them about my problems in doing the job. They didn't want to hear it; they just wanted the work done. I can remember being so stunned, almost, many years later, when a young black woman left the Post and went to work for the Wall Street Journal. She came back and she was telling everybody about how she had been mistaken for a secretary, and she was just talking and venting, and everybody was [saying], "Oh, how awful!" I thought about it's so much healthier to be able to air all this stuff and talk about it and have it batted about, but we didn't have that choice.
* Graham committed suicide in 1963.
In addition to the [Paul] Robeson book, there's something I want you to read, called The Racial Revolution, which Ben Gilbert, as a matter of fact, wrote about the Post and Washington. I don't know what will become of it. It's not really a book; it's a pamphlet. It may never be published. I think he had hoped that the Post would publish it. I don't know quite how the Post feels about it, but it might give you some insight into the city and the racial dynamics of the city, the racial separation of the city. So all that was again reflected in the attitude of the Post.
A few years before, the first black man had come to the Post, I believe it was in the early fifties, early to mid-fifties, a man named Simeon Booker. He was forced to use a different bathroom, and he has written about that in a book. He just finally left; he couldn't stand it. Certainly those kind of problems were not there when I got there, but there was none of the ease of association. The person who helped me a great deal was Luther Jackson. There were places where we couldn't even go and eat. We often ate at the YWCA, because there were places that we would be comfortable and we would be accepted. I recall that Elsie Carper, who was one of the people who they asked to go to lunch with me sometime. I remember she and I went to lunch. I believe we went to lunch at the Y, as a matter of fact.
As a Southerner who had been kind of raised in a much friendlier environment and culture, I was deeply crushed when people I would see inside the newspaper, I would see them on the street and they would pretend they didn't know me, and that happens to this day. That still happens, not nearly as much as it used to, but there are still reporters who say that people have this level of insecurity, I guess. I don't know what their problems are. But that was a big issue for me. You're twenty-four years old, you don't know. I mean, there was just pain from so many, many, many directions.
But there were also the happy moments, too, the moments of getting stories on page one. When I first got to the paper, I guess I had this feeling like anybody on the job, I didn't want to be stereotyped. It's silly. Three black people on the whole paper, and I didn't want to be stereotyped, right? So I said I wanted to be a general assignment [reporter], and they said, "Fine." I did general assignment stories.
I remember one story. There was this woman who was having a one-hundredth birthday, and I went to cover it. In fact, it's not too far from where I live now, right here on Cathedral Avenue. I went to the door, and this doorman, this black doorman, told me the service entrance was around the side. I told him I wasn't a maid who used the service entrance; I was a reporter and I was going up to Miss X's apartment to cover her birthday. He was just totally, totally disbelieving and awestruck, you know, because in so many places—in New York there were apartments where blacks didn't go as guests. There are legions of stories where well-known blacks have talked about going to see various people, and unless the doorman had been alerted ahead of time to expect this person, they would have a lot of trouble getting in.
So I mean, these were just all kind of slights and insults, and I think, unfortunately. I've tried to work to get rid of some of that kind of pain from those years in my work today. Some of those memories are still there, and I try to bury them where they belong, but the truth is that some of those memories are there, because they were really very painful. What one does, especially since there are so many issues, is that one internalizes that, and then you assume, "Obviously there's something wrong with me." When we know now, of course, I can put it in the larger
context and I know all of these various factors that are at work, but there were really some very, very difficult times.
After a while, however, I decided that it didn't make a lot of sense to try to be a general assignment reporter, because a lot of the very best stories were in the areas of welfare, some of the problems of the poor, so while I'm trying to cover stories of birthday parties and one-hundred-year-old women—I remember another front-page story, but it was about a flower garden that somebody had blooming in some section of Dupont Circle or whatever, you know. But these weren't the good and juicy stories.
Meanwhile, of course, what was happening in the early sixties is that the [John F.] Kennedy administration was getting started, so there was more interest. I can't say what it had been like under [Dwight D.] Eisenhower, but it certainly was much more interest in problems of the poor. We'd begun the Great Society, the discussions about the war on poverty, and all that, so it was clear that there were going to be some good stories. In addition, there was a person who was one of the owners of the paper who was very interested in the subject, and that's Agnes Meyer. That's Katherine Graham's mother, who was very, very interested in these stories. So it was clear that these stories were going to be getting attention, and so I increasingly found myself wanting to be a part of that coverage. So I started covering much more of some of the problems of the poor in the city. There were a lot of stories that were turned up, a lot of very good stories.
Moorhus: Was that within the first year or two that you were here?
Gilliam: Yes. My entire tenure at the Post in the early period was about three years, from October '61 until early '65. So everything I'm discussing was done during that period.
One of the institutions I wrote a lot about was a place called Junior Village, and it was the District residence for homeless children. It was a very sad place, because it had these children without mothers. You'd go out there, and the children would call strangers "Mama! Mama!" So I wrote a series that got very good play and reception. I don't know exactly when it was during that period that I wrote it, during that three-year period, but I remember Hubert Humphrey put it in the Congressional Record, so it got a lot of attention. I wrote about a lot of the institutions and the problems. As I said, everything was done under great stress, and a lot of times it was stress that you couldn't discuss. The main person I discussed a lot with was, as I said, Luther Jackson. He was just somebody I could talk to.
Moorhus: Was the series on Junior Village assigned to you, or was that something that you uncovered and chose to write about, proposed yourself?
Gilliam: I believe it was assigned. I don't remember how I got it. But I know that I had been covering various stories on Junior Village and various stories on welfare and various stories on poverty. There were just a lot of dramatic cases in the way people were living. These were the early days when a lot of these stories had not been written, so I know I did get a lot of play on a lot of these stories.
I remember Jackie [Jacqueline] Kennedy went to Junior Village. It was a Christmas visit. She had on her little pillbox hat, and went through, and, sure enough, the kids were calling her "Mama! Mama! Mama!" the way they would call anybody else. It was a very poignant story. I remember on that story, as I recall, I must have been pregnant.
I remember that I was about seven or eight months pregnant when William F. Byrd, Senator Byrd, who has mellowed quite a bit over the years, took a trip through Junior Village after, I think, the series I had written. Junior Village was sort of his special purview. He was the head of the District Committee, and he was just an SOB. I mean, he had all this power and he used it, and he was widely regarded as a person at that time who showed all the signs of a staunch segregationist. At one point, he was on this tour and I was one of the reporters, and he reached back and helped me across—I don't know if it was a ditch or a divide or something, because it was quite a large kind of campus, but I remember remarking to somebody, "I bet I was the first black woman he had ever held his hand out to help or escort." Of course, I don't know. There might have been more.
There were a lot of good stories, I think, and I felt very proud of a lot of the work that I was doing in just covering and writing about what was going on in the city. I think it was the kind of coverage that hadn't been done in quite that way. So even though I often felt, as I said, a lot of pain, I've always been able to kind of control myself, which has its positives and negatives, as you can imagine. Years later, Luther Jackson would say, "You were always so cool in the newsroom," you know. And I said, "Well, I may have looked cool, but actually I was often very torn up inside."
Moorhus: You mentioned Elsie Carper. Was she somebody that made an effort to really befriend you, or was this an obligatory lunch that you went out for with her?
Gilliam: No, I think she made an effort to befriend, to a certain extent. She was an older lady. I don't mean it that way, but she was much older.
Moorhus: She wasn't a contemporary.
Gilliam: No, no. I believe she was on the national staff, and I was on the city staff, but it didn't feel just obligatory, no. No, I think she had always taken a special interest in the affairs of race and of women, and it felt like it was much more than that. And there were other women who were special friends. I remember a woman named Rasa Gustaitis, who was a contemporary. She was Lithuanian. We were certainly friendly and shared some issues.
Let me go back and set this a little more in the time frame in terms of both the personal and the professional. As I said, when I first got to Washington, I at that point didn't have any immediate thoughts of marriage, but within a few months, we [Sam Gilliam] decided to get married, and we set the wedding date for September 1962. So we married in Louisville, and I think I told you Sam was an artist, a painter. He was looking for a job as a teacher.
Moorhus: Tell me about the wedding.
Gilliam: The wedding was in Louisville. I have some pictures I can show you, complete with white gown and tuxes. My sister was my maid of honor, my oldest sister [Evelyn]. My brother gave me away. I was married in the church that my father built, the one he formerly pastored, in the church my mother attended and the church my sister attends to this day. It was a very thrilling occasion, I'm sure, for everybody, including my mother, because I was the first daughter to have this wedding. She had three daughters. One daughter was mentally retarded. My older sister never married until she was in her fifties, so that my mother never lived to see. So it was a big and quite lovely event. I rented my wedding dress. My children have never forgiven me. They just think that is too vile. But as I was looking at what money I had, you know, the cost and all of that, I thought, "What a waste!" I rented a quite pretty dress for, I think, about $50, and it
was a place in Washington, I believe called Royal Weddings or something like that. I figured if men can rent their tuxes, why can't I rent my wedding dress?
I believe I had five attendants, plus my sister, so it was a very, very nice wedding and a very scary occasion, as most weddings are.
Moorhus: So it was really quite traditional.
Gilliam: Very traditional. Very traditional. The wedding reception was held at a club in Louisville, so it was very, very, very traditional.
Moorhus: Did you and Sam talk, before you were married, about whether or not you would continue working?
Gilliam: No, it was just so absolutely expected. I mean, you know, it was just a foregone conclusion. First, that's been a tradition with black women to continue to work. There certainly were exceptions, but both for financial reasons and because it has also always been a tradition, it was something that was expected.
What we did talk about was my byline, whether or not I was going to change my byline from Dorothy Butler, because I had written under that name for almost a year when we got married. It was very clear that he definitely expected me to change my byline, and that was not a major decision for me. I think I had enough traditional notions at heart so that that was not at all unacceptable to me. I love now that women are keeping their names and hyphenating them. There's no telling what name I'll have by the time I check out. [Laughter.] I may take an entirely different one.
Moorhus: Did you use Dorothy Butler Gilliam for a while, or did you go directly to Dorothy Gilliam?
Gilliam: I went directly to Dorothy Gilliam. The Dorothy Butler just seemed long and cumbersome, and it was also the era. It was the era in the early sixties.
Moorhus: That's the way we did it, all of us.
Gilliam: That's right. We took the husband's name. One of the things that happened, however, was that I think I must have gotten pregnant on my wedding night, because our first child was born after we had been married eight months. So I'm back at work after being off a week from getting married, and by December, I discover that I'm pregnant, which was thrilling, frightening, and totally unexpected. I mean, I had no thoughts of what all this involved. It just happened. So that was quite a development. I worked up until—I thought I was going to have a month off to kind of rest and whatever. She was born four days after I left work for my maternity leave.
Moorhus: For the record, her name and birth date.
Gilliam: Her name is Stephanie Jessica Gilliam. Jessica is after my mother, Jessie. She was born on May 7, 1963. One of the pluses of being on maternity leave with Stephanie from April till I
went back to work in September was that I was able to attend the march on Washington* as a citizen instead of a reporter. That was just a wonderful treat to be able just to sit and absorb the glory of that day and the drama and the significance of it. For so many events, as reporters we're observing and rushing around and writing stories and taking notes and interviewing people, so it was very nice, for so significant an event, to be able to attend it as a black woman who was a part of an event that so shaped my life, just changed everything for me.
Moorhus: What about Sam? Did he attend the march as well?
Gilliam: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. We got a babysitter. In fact, we took Stephanie to the home of some mutual friends, and we both marched and attended, so that was exciting.
As I said, I went back to work when Stephanie was four months old. We were living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, and we moved to a section called Manor Park and rented a little house. It had a basement so that Sam could paint, so he had some more space to paint. He also had rented a studio, so he was beginning to get started on his career as well. He was teaching at McKinley High School.
Moorhus: Who took care of the baby when you went back?
Gilliam: I had to have a babysitter who came in and took care of Stephanie. That was the big expense, but I don't think I could have done it any other way. I have a lot of admiration for women today who get up and take their kids to day-care centers and all of that, but it just wasn't something that I could do. So I went back to the Post in September, when Stephanie was a baby, I hired somebody to babysit, and kind of carried on.
One important piece of my career during that period, and actually before Stephanie was born, was going to Mississippi and covering aspects of the civil rights movement. The story that I remember most vividly is going to cover the integration of "Ole Miss" [University of Mississippi], when James Meredith tried to get into Old Miss.* The way the paper was covering it was this: they had a reporter, who was a national reporter, covering the campus, and they asked me to go and cover the community, get the other side of the story, which I was very glad to have that assignment.
When I got to Oxford, Mississippi, first of all, it was the South. Mississippi is a place that just evokes all kinds of fear and feelings in any sane black person. I certainly had my share of worry and concern about going to Mississippi. When I worked in Memphis many years before, I met a man named Ernest Withers, who was a wonderful old photographer. When I got the assignment to go to Oxford, I called my friend Ernest Withers in Memphis and asked him if he would go with me and be the photographer. I knew that he would also be there in many other capacities. So he said, yes, he would go with me, and the Post agreed to pay him. So I flew into Memphis, and we rented a car, and then we drove over to Mississippi.
* August 28, 1963 - 200,000 Americans from all over the country participated in a civil rights march on Washington, D.C., which ended at the Lincoln Memorial. The climax of the rally was the address by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream."
*October 1, 1962 - James H. Meredith, escorted by federal marshals, registered in University of Mississippi, thereby desegregating the university. Ross Barnett was governor.
This was such a difficult, difficult, frightening time. Mississippi was watching its most cherished notions being challenged, so it was just rising up in fury. We drove to Oxford, and on the road as we were driving to Oxford, we were followed by—this sounds like a cliché, but it's really true—by these men in pickup trucks, with the gun racks and the gun in the gun racks. We were harassed, and it was just very, very frightening. Luckily, Ernest Withers is a Southerner and kind of knows how to handle Southerners, and he made me feel totally protected, to the extent that he was able to. But if one has to do that kind of reporting, I was glad—
Moorhus: You haven't mentioned him before. Where had you known him from?
Gilliam: I had known him in Memphis when I worked for the Tri-State Defender that brief two months. That's when I met him. He is the one with whom I went over to Little Rock. Mr. Withers is still alive today. I guess he must be over eighty years old. He's a marvelous old man.
When I got to Oxford, the city was in total chaos, as you can imagine. I'm trying to remember if the troops had been ordered in the day I was there, or if that happened later. But my main problem was one of just finding accommodations; there was no place for me to live, sleep. My colleague, Bill Claiborne, who was covering the Post story from the campus side of things, stayed at the Sand and Sea Motel, and I ended up at the black funeral home. There was just no other place for me to stay.
This story is one I've told before, because it just has such poignancy for me. In fact, I told it twenty-five years later when I went to Mississippi. They were having a twenty-five-year reunion of people who had covered the civil rights movement, and my story was challenged by an official of the University of Mississippi, but I hold to my story, not that I hadn't stayed in the funeral home, but this is the part that I'm about to tell you. During the night, there was this noise in this funeral home, and it was not something that you want to hear when you're sleeping in a funeral home. You think about small towns where people who have funeral homes, they have their home, and the funeral home, all this is in the back, so these are like family businesses. This was in the black side of town, the one funeral home in the whole town. I learned the next morning that they had found a body, I believe on the railroad track in Oxford, and it was being brought to the funeral home during the night. When I talked to people the next day, they said that they thought that it was a message to the black community to watch themselves. Now that they had all these Northern reporters and troops were either there or coming, the eyes of the world were on Oxford, so they were protected, but this was to let them know that once all these people were gone, it was still going to be just them, just the white folks and the black folks, and "This is what happened to niggers." That was that whole message.
As I said, when I told this story, one of the officials at the university said, "I don't remember any death being reported in the black community during that fracas." I said, if you think about all the deaths that go unreported in black communities, I know that it doesn't seem likely in the sense that you would think that the press would be all over it, and I don't know if they chose not to make a big deal of it, if the community, in its fear, chose not to make a big deal of it.
But it was just a most stunning trip in terms of all of these events that were happening, the personal, from not being able really to live in a place where you could feel comfortable, although people were very kind to me, to just the fear involved in just getting the story itself, the fear involved in driving up and down the highway.
Ernest Withers wanted me to go and talk to Medgar Evers.* That was one of his extraordinary values, he knew everybody. He said, "You need to go over to talk to Medgar Evers." We went over and interviewed Medgar Evers, and, of course, it turned out that not very long after that, Medgar Evers was killed. But I got a lot of tremendous material covering that movement. That trip actually occurred, as I said, the fall of '62. I'm sure that's the period.
So I was covering the civil rights movement some, I was covering the war on poverty in Washington. It was in many ways a very exciting time, because attention was beginning to be focused on the problems of—
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Moorhus: So you were covering the civil rights activities here in Washington and the war on poverty. What about the assassination of President Kennedy?
Gilliam: The assassination of President Kennedy was a real interesting day. One of the people in my class at Columbia [University] had been Jackie Kennedy's half-sister, Nina Auchincloss Steers. Somehow we just hit it off, and would occasionally see each other once or twice a year. We couldn't have had more different lives, but we still had a lot in common, and we enjoyed each other. We just happened to be having lunch that day. She and I were having lunch at a place down the street from the Post called the Golden Ox restaurant. So we were sitting there eating, when this sort of word seemed to whip around the restaurant that he had been shot. As I recall, it was around lunchtime.
Moorhus: Like 12:30 or something.
Gilliam: I'm pretty sure we were in the restaurant. I don't know if we'd just been seated or had ordered or what. Of course we both just went bonkers. She went off, and I went back to work. I remember everybody was pitching in, doing anything they could. I was on the phone calling people all over the country, and I remember calling somebody in Loudon County, this woman who was our stringer down there, and she said, "Did the man who shot him, was he black or white?" I mean, it was such a strange question, I thought. I guess a lot of people were probably asking it, but I wondered, when she asked, I wondered if she knew that I was black. I had the feeling that she probably didn't.
My assignment the day of the funeral was to be at the corner of Sixteenth and K, I believe it was. We were posted in different almost stake-out positions. I still remember the day of the funeral, because obviously everything took place elsewhere, but the day of the funeral, that's where [I was]. I think the most poignant memory for me is seeing the figure of [French President] Charles de Gaulle walking down the middle of Sixteenth Street, because, of course, the cortège was moving in that direction. But it was again one of those—I was a young reporter, I was doing part of the footwork. I didn't have a real important role at all. But it was one of those moving moments in history where you observe the shock and you're part of the shock. But I think the irony that Nina and I were having lunch is really quite something.
Moorhus: Did you have contact with her in those few days or after that day?
* Medgar Evers - Field secretary of NAACP, assassinated June 12, 1963.
Gilliam: No, no. It was sometime later before we got in touch again. We just went our separate ways.
I remember the first time I went to the White House, as a matter of fact. I was sent over there on a very, very minor matter, but it was very exciting for me. I think I was covering something like the annual Rockefeller Awards. Presidents do twenty-five things a day. I still remember how excited I was when I was a student at Columbia during Kennedy's inaugural, with the snow piled six or eight or ten feet, or whatever it was, on inaugural day, and we all stayed at International House and sat before this roaring fire and watched the television as he gave his speech. So he was really quite a mythic character.
So when they said, "Go over and cover the Rockefeller Awards," it was going to be an eight-inch story, at most, but when I got there, I just knew that I was going to faint. I just knew. I could just see that there was going to be this story that this little young reporter had fainted in the White House! I just knew it. I was standing there, and he was something, just so pro forma, just too pro forma for words. Just really being that close to him and the whole picture, I mean, I guess then I was just a few months out of Louisville. [Laughter.] Later, Ethel Payne talked about when she was at a press conference and asked a question that Eisenhower didn't like, her mother said to her, "Sister, who are you, trying to sass the president?" [Laughter.] Later I said, "Well, that's so much better than just going into the White House and fainting! At least you were functioning as a reporter."
Moorhus: But you didn't faint.
Gilliam: I didn't faint. See, that's where that control comes in handy. It probably plays havoc at some other level.
So what happened then, '64, I continued writing, and I came back, but I was finding myself being kind of unhappy personally, being unable to spend much time with my daughter. I'm a person who, while I consider myself aggressive as a reporter, I have never been that great at fighting for myself, but I found myself fighting when I thought I was not going to be able to have any time with my daughter. So I remember going to the editor and saying, "Is there any way possible that I can go on a part-time schedule just while she's so young? I'm just missing her!" I've never been one of these people who thought about, "Oh, I want children, and, "I want to have a career." I just didn't think about these things. I just sort of stumbled into them. So here I was, just shocked at this grief I was feeling about leaving her and not seeing her enough. The hours were long and unpredictable. So when I first asked the question, the assistant city editor said, "No, you can't work part time. Look at all the men here. They might want to work part time and go off and write the great American novel. Why should we give you that special privilege?" So I went away for a while, but I just was suffering, so I came back and said—
So finally they said, "Okay, you can work part time." Basically what I was working—I believe I was working three days for a while, then it was four days. But just that extra day made such a difference. I was doing it for a while, and I thought I was keeping my work up, because I'd come in whatever hour in the morning and stay as late as I had to stay, but I knew I was going to have that extra time with her. After a while, they came to me and they said, "You can't do this anymore. You're just lowering the morale around here. There are people who say why should
you do it and they can't do it." And it was very typical of attitudes towards women and children. As I said, I looked around that newsroom, and, you know, the women on the staff, there were not that many women, but most of them were not married.
So I think I got pregnant the second time so I'd have an excuse to quit. So I got pregnant with my second daughter, and when I went off on maternity leave with her in early '65, I decided not to go back. I went ahead and resigned. Sam was still teaching, and what I started doing was freelance writing.
Moorhus: This is Melissa?
Gilliam: Melissa. She was born August 21, 1965. So for a period from '65 until '72, I did freelance writing. I still wrote some for the Post, primarily for the Post magazine. I did some teaching. I taught a semester at Howard University. I taught a semester at American University. Then I started doing television. I worked for about three, four years for Channel 5 here. They had a show called "Panorama," which was a daily talk show format. I was what they called a special reporter. I'd come on a couple of days a week, maybe fifteen minutes, and I'd usually bring somebody and interview them, usually somebody from the community. This was a period of the sixties when everybody was trying to scramble to have a few African-Americans in various positions, so I was able to take advantage of some of those opportunities.
Moorhus: Did you enjoy the broadcast work?
Gilliam: Well, yes. Yes and no. It really filled the bill in many ways for me, because the pay really was almost as much as I made working full time at the Post, and it gave me much more flexibility. So, yes, I did enjoy it. What I found, however, in '72, when the Post came and asked if I was interested in coming back and working as an editor, it was only when I returned to newspaper work that I kind of realized how much I had missed of the more substantive news and more of the in-depth involvement.
Moorhus: What kind of reports did you do on television?
Gilliam: I would interview people about a whole variety of things. In fact, it was like being your own producer and then your own on-air talent. I brought people on. There were two of us who were being the special reporters. One was a woman named Bonnie Angelo, who worked for Time. She'd usually do national subjects, White House and that kind of stuff, and I would do community things. So I would interview people about the war on poverty, about civil rights, about race, about women's issues, about social issues, about various events in town. There were a lot of changes taking place in Washington, because in the late sixties, Lyndon Johnson appointed our first mayor. Washington the city was beginning to take on a more egalitarian feel. So I'd do local politics, I'd do national politics, whatever, a little bit of everything.
Moorhus: The freelance writing, what kind of topics did you choose?
Gilliam: A lot of them were related to race, but they were also related to different aspects of things. Judith Viorst and I did kind of a joint piece on women, women and men. I'm trying to remember that piece. It was in Potomac magazine. I still have this picture of both our pictures being there. It was about men and women or something. I did a piece or two, one for Redbook, one for McCall's. I remember the one for Redbook, I believe, one of those two, the title was "My Children Have a Right to Feel Proud," and it was something about some of the problems that young black children were facing. So they were very topical subjects.
Moorhus: Did you keep copies of those articles?
Gilliam: Somewhere. I have done such a bad job of even keeping copies of my column. There are things that obviously I can get.
Moorhus: Someplace in this period of '65 to '72, you had a third daughter, right?
Gilliam: Yes. In 1967, my third daughter was born, Leah Kathryn. She was born February 12, 1967. So that was another thrilling thing to have this marvelous blessing of not one, not two, but three children. For somebody who had never given much thought at all to children and family, I think I had stopped with getting married. [Laughter.] But this all brought great joy and happiness to my family in Louisville. My mother would come and get them in the summer for two or three weeks, or we'd take them down there. We'd go home at Christmas. That was a source of great joy, great, great joy to my family.
What happened was, in 1970 or '71 at the Post, there was a group of black reporters called the Metro Seven, and they filed a lawsuit in which they were challenging the Post around its issues of not having more black editors.* It was shortly after that time that I was sought out. I can't help but think there was some connection.
Moorhus: It would seem that's a possibility.
Gilliam: Right. Right. So I did go back to the Post in '72. It's interesting that I hadn't really intended—I really thought that phase of my life was over, because the freelance writing gave me the flexibility to do a lot of the family things that I had needed to do. Sam's career was picking up, and there was a lot of travel involved with him. So I really didn't expect to go back. When the job came along, I said, "Well, maybe I'll take it for just a year." Unlike before, when they thought I was crazy when I asked to work part time, now they wanted me, so they said, "You want to work part time? Yes, you can work part time." So I worked four days a week, and I worked from one until like eight in the evening for the first few years, which meant I basically was there in the morning to get the girls off, take them to school, and then I had a babysitter, a person I had later named a "creative companion," to be with them in the afternoon. So I had a series of people who were with them.
So from '72 to '79, I worked in the "Style" section as assistant editor. That was quite an experience. It was a very different Washington Post I went back to. My old friend Ben Gilbert was gone. He was ousted in a not terribly attractive manner, because he was said by some to be too close to the community. It turned out that he was a quite good friend of the former mayor, Walter Washington, and there were some people who just thought that friendship was too close for a newspaper editor. But he was gone by the time I came back.
Ben Bradlee was now the executive editor. Howard Simons was the managing editor. The Watergate era was practically upon the newspaper. I don't remember exactly when Watergate
* Metro Seven filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April 1972 charging discrimination in promotion and hiring.
began, in terms of reporting.* I went back, I believe, in April of '72. Certainly during that year and the next, Watergate would be the big story and it would begin to change the newspaper dramatically in terms of its national and international influence.
In many ways, it was much easier being back in the seventies. First of all, the city was more integrated. There were more African-American reporters on the paper, some black women—glory be! Even though the Post had probably been doing a little more hiring of people of color before some of the other papers, it was the riots in the late sixties that really began to make the newspaper industry very conscious of its very segregated state. What the Kerner Commission said in 1968 was that the newspaper industry was really a part of the problem in its failure to hire Negroes as reporters and editors, in its failure to reflect the communities in their diversity, that newspapers really had helped to contribute to this whole racial dilemma.* So newspapers, where they had been able, more or less, to do what they wanted and to go unexamined, the Kerner Commission was really the first time the bright spotlight had been put on newspapers, and especially on this issue of race, they came up sorely, sorely lacking. So it was after that time the papers really started, I think, looking and hiring more minorities, and Ben Bradlee was certainly a part of that. But as I said, after a while these reporters were saying, "Where are the editors?" So I think that was when I was hired.
I went to the "Style" section when it was being converted from what had been the old women's section into the "Style" section, which is the section that we have today. I don't remember the exact date that that conversion started. It had started long before '72. I believe it would have been in the late sixties. There had been one or two other editors before. What they had decided to do was to—I believe Bradlee used the word "infuse" the "Style" section with new editors, so they brought in about four or five of us at once. I was the only black editor, the first black one back there. What they did was to give each of us a cluster of reporters with whom we worked. I was very interested. I sort of saw what I wanted [as] my goal, to bring some coherence to black culture, so I was able to make a number of hires and get a lot of, I thought, quite interesting things into the newspaper. So I was pleased with a lot of the things that we did.
Unfortunately, some people at the paper seemed to think we were doing too many black stories. At one point somebody said they picked up the "Style" section and they thought it was the Afro-American [newspaper].* So that's the reality of the kind of things that happened.
The man who was the editor when I went back there was a man named Thomas Kendrick. He was the editor for two or three years. Then he was succeeded by a young man named Shelby Coffey. So I worked with two separate editors while I was back there. I had two different experiences. Under Thomas Kendrick I primarily handled a lot of the black reporters, a lot of the
* June 17, 1972 - Five men were apprehended by police in attempt to bug Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.'s Watergate complex, thus beginning the start of the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon on August 9, 1974. Two reporters from the Washington Post broke the story.
*Kerner Commission - National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 27, 1967, known by the name of chairman Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The commission issued its report in February 1968.
*For a discussion of the Afro-American newspapers, see the Washington Press Club Foundation Oral History Project interview with Frances Murphy.
black subjects. Under Shelby Coffey, he rearranged things, and I was kind of in charge of several reporters. I was in charge of the White House reporters, I was in charge of the art critics, and then I also worked directly with two or three black reporters. So it was a somewhat varied portfolio.
The other thing that happened when I was in "Style" is that I also started writing a book on Paul Robeson [Paul Robeson: All American]. While most of my work was as an editor, occasionally I did some writing. I asked to go to New York to cover a salute to Paul Robeson in 1972, actually shortly after I'd gotten back. When I covered that salute, I was so surprised at this array of people who had turned out to honor Paul Robeson. I realized that I knew very little about him, but in my kind of conservative upbringing—and I use "conservative" certainly not in the way that it's used today, but people were pretty patriotic. There had been all these questions raised about his patriotism, and he was just not a figure that I knew a lot about, but I was fascinated and wanted to know more. So I wrote these stories. Then after I'd been there a while, the Post asked me to write his obituary to be put away and used at the time of his death. The more involved I got in writing his obituary, the more interested—I just became fascinated with him. I just wanted to know more. I had to know more. I had to know more. I was able to get a book contract, so from '72 until '76, in addition to the children and the paper and all this, I was working on this book, plus marriage and Sam's career and all these other things. It was a really, really wild time.
Moorhus: It was sort of the period of the superwoman, too.
Moorhus: Women were actually encouraged to try to have it all.
Gilliam: And you had it all at great expense to yourself.
Gilliam: I don't know that I was necessarily aware of that, but I think a few years later I would look around and say, "Where is the real me?"
Moorhus: You were working this whole time part time?
Gilliam: Yes, I was working four days a week.
Moorhus: Were there other women working part time as well?
Gilliam: In the "Style" section, I don't believe so, because none of the other women had young children. Three or four of us were editors, but, no, I don't believe so. I think I was the only one.
Moorhus: Did you have any desire to go back to the hard-news area rather than the "Style"?
Gilliam: No, no. That worked out. It seemed very fine, because it was not the same old women's section; it was a place for the veteran writers. Because Sam was an artist and I was very involved in the art world, I had become very, very interested in art and the arts, and so there was a definite and direct cultural connection and interest. So I was very pleased to be there. One of the things I missed, of course, in the newsroom, there was all the focus on Watergate. We did Watergate coverage as well, but it was much more peripheral. There were people who were doing some of
the major figures, although most of that was happening on the national staff. I think being in the newsroom at that time would have perhaps given [me] a little bit more of the feeling of what was going on during Watergate. But, no, I was very comfortable back there, and the flexibility that it provided was very good.
By '77, '78, I was beginning to tire of that. First of all, I was tired of being what I called a little "straw boss," you know, as an assistant editor, because I really couldn't make decisions, final decisions that stopped here. I felt that the paper was not as happy with a lot of the black articles that we were doing. I was able to get things in that were long, Q&As [Question and Answer] with black intellectuals, things that I thought—I have so much regard for our readers, you know. I think people really can make up their minds if we give them information. But after a while, they wanted something different. So when they brought Shelby Coffey in, who was considerably more conservative than Tom Kendrick had been, some of my reporters left the paper, I realized I needed a change.
I had reached the point where I had to decide whether I wanted to leave the paper altogether or do something different. As I thought about it and talked with some of my colleagues, one of the things I thought I would like to do is to be the editor of the Washington Post magazine. The magazine at that time was called Potomac magazine. It was pretty awful. As we'd sometimes sit back and talk about what needed to change, we talked about how a new and revised and revamped magazine could be the flagship for the newspaper, could carry the best writing. There are a lot of the national reporters who know so much more than they ever write about in their stories and could carry stories that they would write on various subjects, etc.
So I wrote up this memo and sent it to Bradlee. Oh, I must tell you. I always was shaking whenever it was time for me to go up on the north wall.
Moorhus: On the what?
Gilliam: On the north wall. That's where his office was.
Moorhus: And that's what they called it?
Gilliam: We call it the north wall even now. Same place. No longer [do I shake going up there], but during that period. There were a lot of things happening in my personal life. It was real nerve-racking for me to go up there. I think, in a way, "Style" seemed so far away. But the first memo I sent him, I think he lost it. I mean, it was very serious to me, because I definitely wanted change. So I didn't hear anything for months and months. Of course, you know, I'm back there fantasizing.
Finally I just said, "I can't stand it anymore," so I went and talked to him. He said he didn't know where the memo was, but, in effect, said there wasn't much chance of my being made the editor of the Washington Post magazine. He didn't say it was because I was a woman or I wasn't good enough; I don't know what his reason was. He just said, "We're not ready to do anything with the magazine yet. We know that the magazine is not what we want, but we're not ready to do anything with it now. Is there anything else you want?" And so I said, "I'll think about it." I thought about the possibility of a column, it was one thing that emerged, so he said, "Why don't you move over to 'Metro' at some date we'll set, and do some pieces and kind of get the feel for it, and do some different kind of pieces, and let's see if we can work you in there. We'll move you when the editors feel you're ready."
So about '79, I moved over to "Metro" and for a few months just did various articles.
Moorhus: Still part time?
Gilliam: No. By then I'd switched to full time. I think it was about '79 or so that I switched to full time. The girls were pretty big by then.
So a few months later—Bob Woodward was the "Metro" editor then, and Herb Denton was the city editor. After I'd been there a few months, they decided, "We're ready for you to go ahead and start writing a column," and so I did.
Moorhus: How was the "Metro" section organized?
Gilliam: There was a city desk for Washington, a Maryland desk, and then a Virginia desk, these three separate desks. The "Metro" editor was in charge of all three desks. The whole column-writing, the first columnist was Dick [Richard] Cohen, who was on the "Metro" page for a while, and then Judy Mann was the next columnist, so I became the third columnist on the "Metro" page.
Moorhus: What's the assignment or the range of topics? How would you describe what it means to be a "Metro" columnist?
Gilliam: What time is it?
Moorhus: Nine o'clock. Tired?
Gilliam: I'm fading. That's the kind of subject you don't want to give short shrift to. I think we're down to being able to finish it in one more, and let's start with that and let me really talk about the subject, because there's so much involved.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.