[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: Dorothy, let's go back to the beginning. Tell me about the family that you grew up in.
Gilliam: I was the daughter of a minister. I was the eighth child, eight of ten. Only five survived. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, was actually born in Memphis, Tennessee. As was the pattern for A.M.E. ministers of that period, when I was about four years old, my father was moved to another church in another city, so we moved from Memphis to Louisville when I was about four years old.
Growing up as a minister's daughter is always pretty challenging, you know. Our life was the life of church. The kids always expected you to be better. Of course it's hard enough being a kid, let alone trying to be a better kid. But I would overall say that my upbringing was characterized by having pretty consistent messages from my family, my school, my community, and the church, so I think that made for a pretty coherent kind of coming of age.
One of the great tragedies of my young life was that my father, who was real important in my life, began to get sick when I was about nine years old, so as he became sick, then our family status also changed, because he had been very, very active as a minister and had actually built a church which still stands in Louisville at the corner of Sixteenth and St. Catherine, this Young's Chapel A.M.E. Church. But as he became ill, it became increasingly difficult for him to carry on all those active ministerial duties. So we started looking for a different kind of life and lifestyle. My father was actually moved up in his church in that he became a presiding elder, but in terms of our lives, we no longer lived in the parsonage that had become home, that I knew very well.
We ended up, as a matter of fact, moving to the country a few miles outside of Louisville. We stayed on these white people's farm. It was like a—I would call it in many ways kind of a sharecropping situation almost, although my father was really not able to do very much work. My mother worked for them. She did what we used to call in the South "worked on the place." My brother, who is only about eighteen months older than I am, after school would take care of the farm. My father was pretty much recuperating from his various illnesses. Then on Sundays he would go and do his presiding elder duties, and those included going and supervising at various churches, preaching and supervising.
But after we had been in this situation for about a year, my father died, and by then I was fourteen years old. So that was a very difficult, difficult, difficult period for our family, because in a way we suffered the loss of status, you know, economic status. It wasn't that we ever had very much money, because we didn't, but there certainly was more of a sense of standing in the community that we had, even though ours was a certainly very working-class community. But there was a certain standing that I felt as a child that we lost when we moved from that to this place in the country. So it was a difficult time.
One of the hallmarks of my growing up, as I think I may have mentioned in our interviews, was sort of my constant struggle with weight. It was quite an issue, because in the
Southern culture, and I'm sure in many other cultures around the nation, but particularly in the Southern culture, food was the way you showed love. So as my father became more ill, I found myself—in hindsight I can make this analysis—I found myself kind of relying more and more on eating to deal with all of these very horrible emotions of fear and pain, etc., of my father's possibly dying. By the time my father actually died when I was fourteen, I had swelled to over two hundred pounds. Then after my father's death, then I was able to kind of come back into a more reasonable size.
So in many ways it was a somewhat turbulent period, but these are periods that I did not necessarily identify in that way at the time.
The writing and the journalism started fairly early. I was not a person who wrote poems and kept diaries and journals and all that kind of thing growing up. I guess I had always kind of compensated for some of my weight problems by being "very smart"—"quote, unquote," as we used to say in school. Also in my father's church I had been a person who recited poems, and I would say "The Night Before Christmas" when I was four years old, from beginning to end.
So communication had always been a very important thing for me, but the writing really came a little later when I started in high school, a little bit in high school. Then by the time I graduated from high school, I decided that journalism might be one of the things I would do, and it was a toss-up between journalism and being a lawyer. After I graduated from Lincoln Institute, which was out in the rural part of Kentucky, Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky, I received a scholarship to Ursuline College in Louisville, and then our family moved back into Louisville.
At Ursuline I was able to take an English major, but I really, I guess I'd say, married the idea of journalism when I took a job after classes working at the local black weekly newspaper, which was the Louisville Defender. I worked actually as a secretary in the afternoon. My idea was, I'll see, by working on a newspaper as a secretary, whether I'd like one day to be a reporter. So when I got to the office one afternoon, the editor, Mr. Stanley, came in to me and he said, "The society editor is ill." I wondered why he was telling me that. I was seventeen and not particularly into society. But he said, "We're going to let you be the society editor while she's out ill."
Here I was, a preacher's daughter, three years away from just having had this trauma of losing my father, living back in Louisville for the first time in several years, a freshman in college, so he's sending me out to be society editor. Being society editor to the Louisville Defender was clearly not being the society editor of a huge thing, but it seemed just an enormous challenge for me, because it was a way that I was able to move from what had been a really restricted kind of world, growing up in the California section of Louisville, a working-class community, my father's church, having moved out to the country in that kind of environment, although we always kept our ties with people in Louisville, but I had never met the black doctors and the black lawyers and the teachers and these people.
So it was immediately clear to me that this field of journalism, however narrow it was being practiced at that time when I was seventeen, it became very clear to me that it was a key that opened doors that would not under normal conditions be opened to one. I think I fell in love with the process at that point, because I immediately started meeting people. Then, of course, one received a lot of affirmation, because even though I was probably writing at a fairly elementary level at that point, certainly there were people who liked seeing their name in print, so there was this immediate kind of affirmation. Even though I probably would not have analyzed it in that way at that time, there was also a certain amount of power.
What it did for me was to make me realize that I really wanted to become a journalist, and after a couple of years I did go off to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, and actually majored in journalism. As I said, Ursuline did not offer a major in journalism, only a major in English, and so I wanted to leave home anyway. So that's when I went off to Lincoln University and took a degree in journalism.
Moorhus: Both Lincoln Institute and Lincoln University were segregated schools. What impact has it had on your life, having started and experienced segregated schools?
Gilliam: I'd say both positive and negative. The positive was a very strong sense of self, a very strong sense of myself as a black woman, that I got from that experience. By that I mean when you are in an all-black environment, even as a very racist situation as it was in Louisville, Kentucky, in the forties when I was growing up, if everybody looks like you, you don't worry about whether they like you because you're black or white. They either like you because of your personality or they may tease me because I'm fat, but they're not teasing me because of my race. So it sort of simplified, in a sense, a very complicated country.
The other more substantive positive was that I had teachers who taught us a lot about black history, so even though I learned Latin and I learned algebra and I learned English literature and all of the mainstream subjects, I also learned a great deal about black history and about those blacks who had impacted on American life in a way that much of America did not acknowledge. So these were the kinds of things that were very empowering and very strengthening as I moved into the larger world.
There was a two-year period when I did go to a white school, the two years at Ursuline, and that was very, very strange for me at the beginning, because I just had never had any contacts at all with whites. It was also very painful in many ways at many times. There would be times when I would be snubbed by my fellow students, and those were very painful times. There were some advantages to going to schools like that and living at home, because my family remained my bedrock, and my social life revolved around other black people who lived in the city who might also be attending white schools. So that was a certain kind of protection and reinforcement, positive reinforcement, of who you are. And there were all kind of things in our society that helped to mark certain passages, rites of passages.
For example, I did go into a city chapter of a national sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and that gave me a network when I went off to Lincoln. At the same time I didn't feel excluded from any of the social activities that they may have had at Ursuline, because I had a social life outside. And also the sense of self that I had begun to gain through my elementary and high school also were very, very helpful.
Going to Lincoln was particularly strengthening for me, because I had some wonderful professors. This was in the fifties, mid- to late fifties, before a lot of the very strong black professors had not gone to some of the white schools, so I had professors who were just extraordinary influences on me because of their knowledge of history that once again was not a part of mainstream culture, and in imparting that knowledge to me, it gave me certain strengths in dealing in the larger world. We were always being prepared for the mainstream, which I had always found interesting as I look about at this whole level of development. That's something we can talk about later as I look on the impact of the sixties and the seventies and the eighties and the nineties. Those of us young blacks who were coming of age in the fifties and the sixties were being prepared for the mainstream.
One professor comes to mind immediately, Dr. Lorenzo Greene of Lincoln University, who was a history professor. He had been tutored by the man who is known as the father of black history, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson was the person who started Black History Month. So here was Dr. Greene, who was teaching me, who had been tutored as a young person by this man whose sense of history, whose knowledge of this forgotten history, whose knowledge of this buried history was so powerful, that he was actually able to start at that time it was Black History Week, but now it's Black History Month, and it's a tradition in all of America. So here was this one professor who was an influence on me, because I sat in his class at Lincoln. So it was that sense of the power of an individual who can just ignite certain fires in you, so those were some of the strengths from the black experience.
Some of the negatives were that my isolation from white people during that period, and the fact that they seemed so different and so foreign, and so much of what they had done had been so harmful to black people was that I don't think I had a very realistic sense of whites as individuals for a long time, even though in the two years at Lincoln there were individual people who were friends of mine. I knew so little about the totality of the culture. I knew about the culture because we had to be bicultural just in order to exist, and, of course, watching television, listening to radio, almost all of that was white America. It wasn't black America. So ours was like on another margin of the mainstream, so the whole goal in that was that we had to go into the mainstream and make a difference.
Moorhus: Talk about Columbia University School of Journalism and the experience of being the only white woman at Columbia when you were there.
Gilliam: I don't think you mean that. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: The only black woman.
Gilliam: I think I showed you that picture. It hit home for you, what that meant.
Moorhus: Yes. I was relating to being the only. Okay. Talk about being a black woman at Columbia University School of Journalism.
Gilliam: I went to Columbia School of Journalism in 1960 and graduated in 1961. I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism because I knew I needed those credentials in order to become a daily newspaper reporter. My Lincoln University credentials were just not going to get me a job in a daily newspaper. It was very clear. I had tried. I had been rebuffed. I had worked a couple of years for a black newspaper, and I just decided—actually, a black magazine. I worked for Jet and Ebony magazines. That was a tremendous experience for me as a twenty-year-old going into Chicago to work for Jet and Ebony magazines. Actually, I did very little for Ebony. I worked primarily for Jet.
But I wanted to work for a daily paper. That was part of that mainstream conditioning. So interestingly enough, the first year I tried Columbia, I was told that I did not have enough liberal arts hours, so I went off to work and study in Alabama at Tuskegee Institute in order to get the necessary hours so that I could enroll at Columbia.
First of all, New York in the sixties was quite—it was an exciting time to be there, on the one hand, because it was just at the beginning of the John F. Kennedy era. It was clear that change was in the air, and it was a wonderful time to be coming of age. Being a black woman at Columbia was in many ways extremely traumatic. First of all, to be a woman there had its
moments of trauma, because the women in our class always said that there were quotas on women, and usually the quotas seemed to be about fifteen women per class. Then being a black woman was even more traumatic.
One of the most traumatic things was that I was very much aware of my limitations. What I mean by that is that the class had so many people who had so many advantages—the travel in Europe, just the wide-ranging knowledge of the culture and the society in very intimate ways that obviously I didn't have. But, of course, one's challenge was that you had to be equal and you had to try to excel.
But I can remember, first of all, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism has always had people who have come in with a wide variety of experiences. Our class, for example, included a man who had been an editor on a newspaper for several years, so you had people who were just coming out of college, but you also had people who had a wide variety of experience. So what helped me, there were two or three people who just befriended me in very special ways, and I became very good friends with one in particular, who is even today a very good friend. We sat near each other, so we became very, very good friends. She was a marvelous influence on like translating this gap in cultures. I mean, Columbia was such a mix of New York Jews, Boston Brahmin, Southern aristocracy. This is the Columbia University J School! This was not a state school, you know. [Laughter.] So here I was in the midst of it.
It's so funny, as I look back. My sister, who recently visited, reminded me that she and my mother came on the Greyhound bus to my graduation to Columbia, and I had totally blocked that out. I did not remember that. I can imagine that I was dealing with so many things that I probably was at some level, there was some element of shame. I just must have blocked it out, I don't know.
One of my friends at Columbia was Jackie Kennedy's half-sister. Just the range of people at Columbia.
So how was it to be the only black woman? It was in many ways very, very difficult. I remember my professor, John Hohenberg, looked at me and he said, "You know, you've got so many handicaps, you'll probably make it." He thought that was being positive. Of course, nobody gave—I mean, we all kind of loved Hohenberg, but nobody gave him high marks for sensitivity.
I never felt I did as well at Columbia as I wanted to years later. The most important thing was being able to successfully complete the course and to get a job, and all that did indeed happen. But I felt much of it was—since it was the kind of atmosphere where it could absorb as much as you brought to it, and as much as you brought to it, you seemed to get as much as you brought. To the extent that I came with some of the disadvantages that I've mentioned, I think that I did not get all from it that I might have wanted to. But it did the important thing, and that was that it helped to get me a job on a daily newspaper.
That happened when the Washington Post came down to interview, and actually the person who interviewed me was the city editor, Ben Gilbert. He said, "Well, you know, we think you're interesting, but you just don't have the experience. Go off in the boondocks for a couple of years and get some experience, and maybe you'll be good enough for the Post." This was a very different Washington Post than it is today. I am sure if it was the same Post today as it was then, I probably would not have been hired, but things were somewhat different then.
Moorhus: How was it different?
Gilliam: This was a Post that was—it was pre-Watergate, so that I think the standards were high, but not the kind of stringent standards that seemed to come in after that. It was a somewhat smaller paper. It was a paper in a sleepier, more Southern town. It was a paper still in the early throes of becoming the great institution I think it has become. I don't know if that answers.
Moorhus: That's good.
Moorhus: What was it like starting at the Post?
Gilliam: It was, again, very challenging. Just as I'd been the only black woman in the Columbia J School class, I believe I was the first black woman at the Washington Post to be hired as a reporter, certainly as a full-time reporter. I don't know, there may have been other people before, but I believe I was the first to be hired as a full-time reporter. So once again it was a matter of proving myself, always having to prove myself.
In that period in the early sixties, I started at the Post in the fall of '61, and there was not an open atmosphere about talking about the kind of difficulties that I was encountering just in doing the job I did. There would be many occasions when I'd go out on stories and I couldn't get taxi cabs to pick me up. But I had deadlines, and I had to get back and I had to write. When you aren't back and you aren't writing, you can only tell them, "The cabs wouldn't pick me up" so much, and then when you're the only one—actually, there were three blacks altogether. There were two black men and myself. [Tape interruption.]
It was often, as a black reporter, I often had a harder time just doing the job. Very often I couldn't get a cab. I'd be out in various sections of town, on Capitol Hill, I'd be sometimes in Southeast Washington, and cabs just wouldn't stop. That was part of the fury. I can remember standing there just with tears flowing. I have a hard time crying, but that forced the tears.
There was not the atmosphere in the newsroom to say, "Share what your problems are. Share what your concerns are." We had a city editor, however, who really reached to me. Ben Gilbert was very different with me than he seemed to be with other people and as he seemed to be at other times in his career. He is a person who I just happen to like a lot and who reached out to me and my family. So that eased it to a certain extent, but at the same time how often could you go and say, "The cabs wouldn't pick me up"? There was nothing anybody could do, really, of a substantive nature to change that from day to day. So there were just so many things I never talked about.
I can remember years later hearing black reporters who would go into various places and be mistaken for the secretary or mistaken for this or that, they'd come back and talk about it, and I thought, "My God! How wonderful to be able to talk about stuff that's happening." Because, you know, I really couldn't do that. I remember years later when I got the alumni award from Columbia, the person who helped me get that award, at least who presented it to me, was one of the two black reporters who had been there when I was there—Luther Jackson. So in presenting the award, Luther said that he remembered when he looked at me, I always looked so calm and in control. What he didn't know was how often I was feeling a lot of turmoil, even though I had this very calm exterior. So it was really very difficult.
It was also very difficult because of, I think, a lot of cultural and regional differences. As a Southerner, I was accustomed to a lot of very human interactions. I was accustomed to people
speaking a lot. When you look back at it, we may have been a little excessive, but that was the way we did it, you know. You could see somebody two or three times a day and if you saw them you said, "Hi." But then I interpreted everything as racial, and so much of it really wasn't racial. But I think some of the hardest things was the snubs by my colleagues, the fact that people didn't ask you to go to lunch. At one point Ben Gilbert asked somebody to take me to lunch, you know, because he thought it was important that I didn't feel that isolation. Luther Jackson was a person who was particularly warm, and we would often go to the YWCA and eat lunch there.
My sense is that I did not feel welcome in some of the restaurants around the Post in those early days. I would not say that those restaurants were actually segregated, and I'm not really sure. It's something I need to really check. But I know that Elsie Carper, who has since retired from the Post, but who was there when I was there, and who was one of the people who Ben asked to take to lunch, we always seemed to end up at the Y. Also with Luther Jackson, we ended up eating lunch at the YWCA.
So there was a lot about Washington for a black woman from the South, working in an integrated situation, there were really many, many difficult things. I remember once I was—especially in the early days I was covering general assignment, because I came in saying, "I don't want to be stereotyped as a black woman. I don't want to be stereotyped and I'm going to just cover poverty and welfare." So I wanted to cover general assignment. I remember once I was covering the one-hundredth birthday party of a woman who lived on Cathedral Avenue, which is one of the ritzier parts of Washington and certainly was then. It was one of those neighborhoods where blacks didn't go in unless they were either working as maids or they were working as butlers or chauffeurs. But when I went to the door, there was a black doorman there, and he had on a very elaborate costume, or outfit, I guess you'd say, and he had a plume on his hat. So I walked up, and he said, "What are you doing here? That's the maid's entrance over there."
And I said, "Well, I wasn't coming to be a maid; I was coming from the Washington Post to cover Mrs. X's birthday party. She's one hundred years old today."
He was just incredulous, just absolutely incredulous. He believed me and he let me go up, and the desk person let me go up, but there was this intense sense of discomfort on the part of everybody that I was there covering this woman's birthday party. This is not unusual. I mean, blacks have heard stories in New York and everywhere else, where blacks in certain positions would not—the only way they got through the doors when they wanted to visit white friends would be the white owner of an apartment would call down and say, "I'm having a black guest, and this is their name and this is their number, and you must treat them decently." We've long heard stories about this—Nat King Cole having to go through the kitchen in order to sing in Las Vegas and all that.
These are kind of horror stories that are part of the segregated lore of this nation, but when you experience it, you know, when you feel as though you've kind of made it and you walk in and you're mistaken for the maid and you're told you can't get in to cover assignments, these are not things you can come back and write about. What the paper wanted was the story of the one-hundredth birthday, so obviously that's what I had to come back and do. I don't really remember that I even told anybody. It's not the kind of thing you'd come back and discuss the difficulties involved in getting a story, how you might have felt. So there was a lot that was very difficult in those early years. As I said, I think it was the sharing with other black reporters that helped.
Moorhus: Were there situations in which your being black gave you a special advantage in covering a story?
Gilliam: Potentially so. I'm thinking particularly of some advantages in those early years, of covering some of the early politicians, early black politicians. The problem was there would be people who would come to you and kind of expect you to give them a little bit of a break because they were black, and that became a journalistic problem. For me, the two didn't wash. Even though I understood their special problems, when I got an opportunity to talk about a problem in context, it was my job to set up the context, but I was not going to give anybody a special break because of race. That was in the very early days. I didn't get those requests later.
Moorhus: When did you start covering the black community?
Gilliam: I would not say that I ever covered the black community per se. When I switched from general assignment to cover some of the stories of poverty, etc., that was in the early sixties. That was about when Kennedy came in and started declaring the War on Poverty and really making some serious noises about changing the racial situation in this country. Then we began to have a different attitude toward some of those stories. The real change had started in 1954 with the 1954 decision against school segregation. So once the Supreme Court declared the end of segregation, a lot of the civil rights activity that had been fairly small and somewhat muted really began to explode. Martin Luther King [Jr.] came on the scene leading the Montgomery bus boycott in the late fifties. That signaled the beginning of the civil rights movement. Kennedy was elected in the early sixties.
So there was the beginning in this country of a march for racial equality, and part of that was also looking at the whole economic situation. So when the War on Poverty was declared, there was a change in how newspapers looked at the whole issue of covering issues that related to black people. Before the mid-fifties, blacks were never covered by daily newspapers except in terms of crime and very, very small kinds of coverages, even with sports. So the civil rights movement, however, became a big story in the American press, and part of that was also part of the civil rights movement and the civil rights stories was the beginning of the federal government's entrance into pushing for equality, both in schools and then eventually in terms of public accommodations.
So I was making that shift from covering general assignment to covering welfare, to covering poverty, to covering those things in the early sixties as well, because I saw that I was really only stifling my own career by trying to not be "stereotyped." The big stories were the poverty stories, the welfare stories. At the Post, there was an added advantage, and that is that Agnes Meyer, who was the mother of [Washington Post publisher] Katherine Graham, was very, very interested in welfare and in the city. So the stories I wrote about some of the things that were happening in the black community were very appreciated at the Post and got good play and got page-one play.
I remember I did a series on Junior Village. Jackie Kennedy was not a terribly active wife. She certainly was no Hillary Clinton. But one of the things that she did like was this place Junior Village. I had written a series on Junior Village and about some of the problems. Junior Village was the equivalent of an orphanage. This was a place where unwanted and neglected children were sent. It was very sad, because there's so many of these children just never knew their mothers, and they would call perfect strangers "Mother." I remember when I went out covering Jackie Kennedy, when she went out at a Christmas celebration out there, they were pulling on her coat and calling her "Mama." It was such a sad place.
But those were some of the stories that I started writing and covering in part because they were also the good stories and big stories. So I would say that that took place from about late '63 forward.
Moorhus: One of the other things you were adjusting to during this period of the early and mid-sixties was marriage and a family. Can you talk about your marriage—the beginnings, your wedding, and then your children?
Gilliam: Yes. I married Sam Gilliam, in 1962. I had been a reporter at the Post for about a year. Sam and I had met in Louisville. I met him when I was about seventeen, and he was a student at the University of Louisville and I was a student at Ursuline. So we, over the next seven years, dated and traveled and did a lot of different things with a lot of different people, I guess. But we got married in 1962, and then he moved to Washington.
He was immediately beginning his career as an artist, and he taught at McKinley High School when he first came to Washington, so he was at McKinley and I was at the Post. He was beginning, as I said, his career, trying to find studio space. Immediately he became caught up in the movement known as the Washington Color School, where there were a number of very, I'd say, interesting painters, some better known than others. The best known of them included people like Kenneth Noland and Jean Davis and Tom Downing. So Sam was getting involved in that and getting involved in the early Washington life as a painter.
Our first child [Stephanie Gilliam] was born, I guess about eight months after we got married, and so we immediately got into the business of child-raising and dealing with these two real challenging careers. It was very difficult being a mother at the Washington Post in those days. So you add to the other challenges. [Laughter.] First of all, there were not many women at the Post who were married. Once again, coming out of Columbia, where there were quotas on women—and of course Columbia would deny it to this day that there were any quotas. That was just the perception that we women had, because there just always seemed only to be always fifteen in a class of eighty, you know. But you had those same small numbers on daily newspaper staffs.
At the Post, if memory serves, of the women there were probably one or two who were married, but I do not believe any of the women had children, but most of them at that point—I'm talking about late 1961, 1962, 1963, '64, '65. I'm not saying definitively that there were not other people, because people came and went, but certainly there were not that many women who were married and had children. So there certainly was nothing like flex time or anything like that.
I remember one of the shocks of my life was once my daughter Stephanie Jessica was born on May 7, 1963, that this career didn't seem quite as urgent as it had seemed. It's just something I never counted on, because I had never counted on necessarily getting pregnant. I didn't think about it. It just happened, right? So here is this child. One of the shocks for me was that I wanted to spend a little more time with her. I've always had trouble fighting for myself, but I could fight for my child. I remember going to the city editor—to the assistant city editor, actually—and saying, "Is it possible that I can just work part time, maybe just four days a week instead of five?"
And, you know, he looked at me as if there was this party that they were holding and I had just brought in a skunk. He said, "Well, no, you can't do that."
But it kept being so—I felt that I wanted to do this so much, I went back again. I never talked about the problems I was having reporting stories, but I did say, "I want to go off and try to do this mothering thing a little bit."
But finally I carried on so, and he said, "Okay, you can go off. You can work part time."
So for a short while after she was born, I worked part time, and it was just so much better. I didn't mind working long hours on the days that I worked, but I knew that I'd have an extra day or two with her.
But finally he came to me and he said, "You are lowering the morale of everybody in this newsroom."
And I said, "Why is that?"
He said, "There are men who want to work part time, men who want to go off and write the great American novel. If you get to work a different schedule, everybody else should have that opportunity."
So I think I got pregnant a second time so I would have an excuse to quit. So I did get pregnant again, so here we are with—now we have two children. Melissa Lynne was born on August 21, 1965. Then at that point I did leave the Post and did freelance writing. I did articles for the magazine. I did articles for some of the national women's magazines. I did some teaching. I taught a semester at Howard [University]. I taught a semester at American University. Teaching I found very, very hard. I just don't know what it was at that point that teaching just didn't seem to agree with me. So after that year I was teaching a course at both schools on the history of the black press, so I was learning as I was going along. This was again the last sixties, when there was interest in black history and there was resurgence in black pride and all of those things. Those were some of the things I did after I left the Post in '65.
I was away from the Post from 1965 until 1972 and had not really planned to return. I just thought that was one of the things that I had done. By this time we had three small children. Leah Katherine was born February 12, 1967. Sam's career was picking up. He was becoming known nationally and internationally. We were traveling a lot. He started having shows in Paris, and we traveled to India, we traveled to a lot of different places. So it became easier, in a sense, that I was not working full time, to accommodate his growing career. I think I became very, very, very much the wife. I remember some years later I met an art critic who said, "I met you during that period," and she said, "I remember that you had worked at the Post. You had a little bit of identity." She said, "But you know, you told me, 'Being Mrs. Sam Gilliam is a full-time job now.'" [Laughter.] So I think I may have had a tendency to kind of overdo in certain directions, which I don't entirely blame on him; I blame on me, you know.
By the early seventies, there had been some changes at the Post. In the late sixties, with the riots in a lot of the major urban areas, the Kerner Commission blamed the press in part for a lot of the uprisings in America, in American's urban areas. They said that part of the problem was that the press was not reporting enough about the totality of America, was not contributing to the understanding between races, because it practically ignored the black community, and that unless newspapers began hiring more black reporters—and in this time, of course, it was all black and white. Now we would analyze the problem differently, but at that point it was black and white. They said until newspapers and television stations and other broadcast facilities began hiring black reporters and hiring them and putting them in positions as reporters and editors and
all of this, that we were not going to be reporting to Americans the real picture of what was going on in America.
So one of the reasons that the kind of anger and fury could exist in urban areas, this fury that exploded when Martin Luther King was killed, the reason it could exist in that way was because it was being so poorly reported on. If the spotlight of attention had been in some way put on some of these problems, perhaps we would at least have been aware of it. So the news media was publicly castigated and told, "You are a part of the problem."
The impact that had on the Post was that there were increasing numbers of black reporters who were hired. In 1970 at the Post, a group of black reporters called the Metro Seven sued the Post because they said we needed more black editors. As a result of that suit, the Post began to more seriously look around for blacks who could be editors. In 1972, this was about the time Ben Bradlee was coming on. There was a new section that had also been started at the Post a couple of years before, called the "Style" section. Bradlee's idea was to infuse the "Style" section with a number of assistant editors. His model was to put these assistant editors with a core of reporters who worked with them.
I had gotten to know many of the art critics through Sam [Gilliam], and I had gotten to know quite a few people in the art world. So one day Paul Richard, who was still the art critic, came to lunch, and I was dutifully serving them. [Laughter.] Being my full-time job. That's really not quite true, because I was also doing television part time. I was working for WTTG-Television and doing a number of other things. So I say that only half in jest. But just to talk about a mind-set of the period and a mind-set, I think, of many women, I think many women can identify with that, because that was also just prior to the women's movement.
One day Paul Richard came to lunch, and he looked at me and he said, "You know, you ought to go back to work."
I said, "I am working. I'm talking care of the children. I'm doing part-time television. I'm writing these articles."
He said, "Well, you might think about it."
I think one of the things that he did somewhere in that period when Bradlee was looking around for editors, he may have dropped my name to Bradlee and said, "There's this woman down in Mt. Pleasant who might be a potential editor."
So at any rate, I was rehired at the Post in 1972 as an assistant editor in the "Style" section. Things had changed somewhat. There were, as I said, more women, more blacks. I was able at this point to say I needed to work part time because I now had three young children, and there was some accommodation to that, so I worked four days instead of five.
One of my focuses in the "Style" section was to try to bring some coherence to black culture, and so we were able to get more black reporters hired back there. I think we did a lot of good work in the seventies. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: You were talking about your focus on the black community and the art world as an editor of "Style" section. Do you want to pick up there?
Gilliam: Yes. My focus was probably less on the art world, you know, if we're talking about painting and fine arts. I think my knowledge and involvement in the art world had been one of the positives that had probably gotten me there, but my focus was on culture in a broader sense.
One of the things that happened during that time was that I did a little writing as an editor, and I remember asking to go and cover an event they were having in New York, which was a salute to Paul Robeson. So I went to New York and wrote about this event. I was so absolutely fascinated by this that I came back and thought about the possibilities of writing a book about Paul Robeson. Actually, there was another step that preceded that, because the Post asked me to write Paul Robeson's obituary after I wrote the article. As is the custom for somebody who is getting old and infirm, you write the obituary before they die. It was the writing of the obituary and the research that went into that that really stimulated my interest in writing a book. So during the mid-seventies, from '72 until '76, as I was working as an editor part time and raising my children and also being an artist's wife, I was also writing this book on Paul Robeson. It's one of those periods when you look back and you say my soul looks back and wonders how I got over. That was one of those periods. I had a lot of support from a lot of people, and that made a difference.
So I wrote the book, wrote the Robeson book called Paul Robeson: All American, came out in 1976 in hardback and came out in 1977 in softback. It's important to me, in addition to the act of doing it, was that it was such a reinforcement for a lot of the work that I was doing in the "Style" section as an editor with our reporters who were back there. I think we did a lot of very deep and meaningful work. Unfortunately, everything that seemed deep and meaningful to me didn't always seem deep and meaningful to everybody else, because there was a sense that the seventies were very difficult years in many ways. It was a time when some of the—I guess you would say empathy for civil rights and the black experience and all that was fading. The women's movement was coming more into preeminence, and it was on the heels of Watergate and Nixon and all of that. There was beginning also to be a shift in the paper.
So the "Style" section was just showing, I think, a little too much of this black pride in the way that it was being defined in that period for some people. The editor, who had been a very liberal guy, was moved out. A younger editor who was more conservative was moved in, so the substance of the section began changing somewhat. Some of the people whom I had brought on, or with whom I had worked, were made to feel less comfortable. The word came out one day that one of the editors looked at the "Style" section and thought it was the Afro-American. I knew then that my days were numbered in terms of what I was doing in the way that I was doing it. We've come of age, I think, in many kind of evolutions since then, so now I think it's a very different kind of section with lots of variety and diversity in terms of race and gender and all of that. But we were going through some of the developing throes during that period.
After the new editor came on, I started working more with clusters of reporters, not doing as much "black" stuff. I worked with the art critic as an editor. I worked with the White House reporters. I had a small cadre of black reporters, but race and culture was my focus as much as it had been in the past. And that was interesting for me, but it didn't satisfy me deeply and long enough, so I felt there was need for a change. Then that's when I started thinking about, "What do I do next?"
My thought was, "I have been a reporter. Now I've been an assistant editor. I've been the straw boss. Now maybe I can be an editor." I didn't reckon with all kinds of different forces that I'm sure were at work at that point. I remember talking to one of my colleagues, Judith Martin, who is now Miss Manners, and Judy was feeling very unhappy at some point during that time
herself. We were kind of looking for the next step. So Judy said, "Why don't you apply to be editor of the Washington Post Magazine." We talked about different ideas for it and how the Post Magazine could become the flagship and all of that. With her encouragement and with my growing need to do something different, I developed this long memo, and I gave it to Bradlee, about why I wanted to be the editor of the Washington Post Magazine.
Bradlee obviously had been the person who had hired me, but they hire a lot of people. I always felt very intimidated at that point by Bradlee. All the Watergate action was going on in the main newsroom. "Style" was separate. Although there were obviously "Style" stars who were very much part of the Watergate action, I was much more peripheral. There was a certain kind of glamour that those guys had, that I didn't feel that I shared it. So dealing with Bradlee was not something that I did a lot.
At any rate, I sent him this memo to say, "I'd like to do this," and I didn't hear anything for like months, or at least it seemed like months. Maybe it was only lots and lots of weeks. But I finally got up my nerve to make that long walk from the "Style" section to the north wall to see Bradlee, and so when I got up there, I said I'd sent in this memo. I was very, very nervous. What was going to happen? You know. [Laughter.] He apparently had lost the memo. He just couldn't figure out where it was. But by then it was the late seventies, and so he said, "Well, we really aren't ready to do anything about the magazine. We realize this magazine is not all it should be. We're not ready to do anything about it." People are always quoting Bradlee, and I always say I'm not going to quote things Bradlee has said to me, because he always says he's misquoted. But I have to quote this.
He said that they wanted to keep "Parade," that Mrs. Graham wanted a magazine for people who moved their lips when they read. So as long as they had—that was a factor. They knew they needed to make some major changes, and the magazine was now called "Potomac," but they just weren't ready to do it. As I came out later and discussed it with my friends and my colleagues, they said, "They also weren't ready for you to do it. Just face up to the fact that being a black woman, you did not carry with you the credibility," and that was a factor. No matter what may have been my own shortcomings as a person, my race was the whole notion. So I don't know. But I do know that somehow that memo just never seemed to have turned up in the right hands.
What happened after that, Bradlee said, "What else do you want to do, though?"
And so I said, "So, I can't be the editor."
He said, "Is there anything else on the paper?"
I had to decide whether I was going to leave or stay at that point, and then I decided that I wanted to stay. I said, "Maybe I could write a column."
And he said, "Well, maybe you can." So at that point he said, "Why don't you switch from 'Metro' to 'Style.' Come over and just start writing some features and see how you do."
Moorhus: You mean switch from "Style" to "Metro"?
Gilliam: Switch from "Style" to "Metro." Right. "And come over and see how you do." So switch from the small newsroom to the big newsroom. "And we'll see what this process is like."
The editors of "Metro" at that time were Bob Woodward—Bob had left, had made his huge splash in Watergate and had come back as a "Metro" editor. The other co-editor was a black man named Herbert Denton. So I worked for several months writing basically long features and sort of analytical pieces, but primarily features. Then after a few months, Woodward and Denton said, "Well, we think you're ready to start writing a column." So that's when I started writing the column.
Moorhus: What makes a good columnist?
Gilliam: I've often asked myself that over the last twelve years, because I think what makes a good columnist has changed, and I think the whole art of column-writing is certainly an evolving one. At that point, I think what was expected of me was to kind of continue to do some of the more feature-oriented columns, people-oriented columns that I had done. What happened was that I began some of the racial consciousness, I think, that had maybe at certain points in my career been a little dormant. There would be people who would say it was never dormant, but it certainly began to emerge more. I began then writing not just people-oriented features, but more the point-of-view-type columns.
I can remember a particular editor writing me a letter saying, "Your 'people' columns are fine, but those point-of-view columns, whoa!" Bradlee—I give him so much credit, because no matter what I said in terms of how uncomfortable it was, he really never ever said we're not going to publish something. The only time he ever said to me, "If I had seen that column before it went in, I would have pulled it or I would have asked you to do something differently" was a column that I wrote after the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington, and there was violence. It was not a full-scale riot or anything, but there was some property damage, etc. But I was just so utterly mortified at the idea that the Klan would do this and not take on the responsibility for what all this meant. I wrote this column defending the violence. I mean, Bradlee just—I mean, the letters flowed.
They marched on a Sunday, and I wrote this extra column on Sunday so that a lot of people didn't really see it till Monday, and it hit. People were just—I mean, that was one of the things that, as a black woman, it became clear to me that one of the sacred parts of white culture is that you don't damage property. You can damage the hell out of people, but don't damage property. When you damage property, they're going to get on you, you know. So it was like I had crossed one of these lines that I really wasn't even aware that I had crossed, but it was my passion and, I'm sure, my Southern upbringing, all that was coming fully into play. There was a lot of hyperbole in the piece, but it was really quite a column, I have to say. That was the only time that he ever said that, and I'm sure that as a black woman and really feeling very close to the community, there would be a lot of times when he would disagree with what I said.
Writing a column, for me, was really a learning experience and continues to be a learning experience, because I don't think I brought to it that beautiful smooth writing style and skill that perhaps some people came with. I do credit the Post for giving me an opportunity, because I did not continue to do the same things that I started out doing. I think if I had stuck with those people-oriented columns that they would have been fine, but I don't think they really expected me to take the turn that I took, which was fewer and fewer people-oriented columns and more and more point of view on issues and things like that.
Now, of course, as the new columnists are coming in, I watch some of the new younger black women columnists coming in. It's a much more open atmosphere for women, for blacks. This is the era of openness—gay and straight and coming out of the closet and all this. You know,
it's just a period when people are just saying things and they're saying them differently, so I think a lot of the new columnists are much more personal. I veer sometimes between issues and personal and feature-oriented kind of things. But I'm still very, very interested in larger issues and how they impact on people, so I'm not one of those columnists that writes a lot about myself and my own psyche.
Moorhus: But you said that your daughters have grown up in the columns and you have written about your children and your family.
Gilliam: Yes, I have, and it was easy earlier. Now my daughters kind of forbid me to mention them, because I think I did it overly much in their view. But, no, the column has been really helpful in helping me get over some difficult points. My marriage to Sam ended in 1982. We'd been married twenty years when I decided that I needed to leave that marriage. I was writing the column when that happened, so I certainly went through some difficult periods, emotional periods, when I was trying to deal with my own internal turmoil over that decision and moving ahead. At the same time I was writing, but I wasn't writing about that. After a couple of years I felt that I was able to write about my daughters, so some of the issues with my children and some of the joys with our children I was able to share in the column, like college graduation and high school graduations. I've written about the empty nest syndrome. That's been very helpful, to be able to write about those kind of things.
Moorhus: When you went back to the Post in '72 and through the seventies, you've talked about some of the changes at the Post, but was there a group of black reporters that you were able to have the kind of relationship with that you didn't have when you first went to the Post?
Gilliam: Absolutely, and that's made such a difference in the Post, in my life at the Post. [Tape interruption.]
Yes, one of the real positives about the paper has been the increase in diversity. Many, many more African-American reporters, many more women as editors, many more Asian reporters, Hispanic reporters, Hispanic and Asian editors. Not nearly enough, certainly a long way to go toward the kind of diversity it needs, but it's come a long way. White males who have certain disabilities, black females with certain disabilities—the physically challenged. But the point is that it's a good—it's a healthier feeling, but still many, many problems.
Recently there's a publication called "Challenge and Change" that the Post has put out on diversity, and it looks at where the Post has come so far and how far it still has to go, why there are still a lot of reporters there who are unhappy, some of the anxieties of white males in this new era of diversity, some of the lingering problems and issues. So it's a good publication. I have to say I look at it with a little amusement, because I've had my challenges in the Post, not only the ones of not moving up as I possibly would have. When I look at some of the white males who have been there as long as I have, you know, they're certainly doing different things than I'm doing. Some of them are not. So, you know, it's not any blanket statement I'm making here. Sometimes some of my biggest challenges have come from black editors. So this is not a complex racial analysis.
But a couple of years ago, I left the Post for a year and went back to New York, to Columbia once again, and became a fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. I was looking at the issue of racial diversity in the news, and one of the things that struck me was that it was important for me to become an activist, to try to help bring about industry change, and that some of the energy that could have become negative energy if I had just taken all of the slights
and the hurts and the rebuffs that I'd had in my career, and turned them inward, I think they could have made me a very bitter, unhappy person. I've been blessed with the ability to turn them outward.
One of the things I did at the Freedom Forum was to decide that I wanted to run for national office, to run for president of the National Association of Black Journalists. So I ran first for vice president, and then I ran for president. The way it relates to your original question—this is becoming a long answer to your question—was that—I'm blocking. It just left me. I started answering your question and then I—
Moorhus: You were talking about support and how you got support.
Gilliam: Right. Right. How could we clean this one up, Donita? Your skill as an interviewer will come back, and let's knit this together.
Moorhus: Talk about the ways you have gotten support as a black female journalist.
Gilliam: Okay. There have been many ways that I have gotten support as a black female journalist. One of those ways has been to work outside of the newspaper. One of my most important involvements was serving as a member of the board of the Institute for Journalism Education. The Institute for Journalism Education was started in the mid-seventies and was a direct outgrowth of the urban rebellions and riots of the late sixties. As I mentioned, there was a presidential commission called the Kerner Commission which issued a report that came out in the late sixties after those riots. In it, they indicted the newspaper industry for not doing enough to foster a more integrated newsroom.
One of the things that happened after that was that many institutions started having different programs. Columbia was one of them. The Ford Foundation sponsored a program there, a summer program for minority journalists to do an intensive training program for minorities so that the number of journalists could be increased in the media. After that ran at Columbia for a few years, the funds were stopped, and Ford and Columbia, in effect, said, "Well, we've taken care of that problem. That's it."
But there was a small group of minority journalists, and they said, "We are going to continue this program," and they continued it by raising the money and starting a summer program in Berkeley at the University of California. In about 1976, right after my book was published, as a matter of fact, I was called by Bob Maynard, Robert C. Maynard, who was one of the key leaders in starting that program, to come and teach that summer and also later to be a member of the board of the Institute for Journalism Education. That has been such a tremendous positive thing in my life, because it has given me a way to try to give back, but I've gotten so much more out of it, because, as I said, here was a way for all those daily frustrations that build up, we all have them in our work, but as a black woman you have to add to the frustrations we all have as human beings, those added frustrations that were coming as a result of race and gender. Of course, there was also this long history that I carried with me.
So I worked with the Institute, teaching there in summers, worked on the board, and in 1985 I became chairman of the board of the Institute for Journalism Education. This was quite a large volunteer activity. The Post would help me by paying my airline fare to the board meetings which were usually twice a year. I met many journalists all over the country. I met many of the industry leaders all over the country. It was a very natural progression then for me to want to take that extra struggle, that extra job and work that I had done, when I decided to take a leave
from the Post, to go to the Freedom Forum Media Study Center at Columbia. I wanted to write about the subject of racial diversity, and I wanted to write about it in the context of the entire country.
What happened that year, however, was that instead of writing, I decided I needed to become an activist. As I understood the developments, by the nineties—and this was the year 1991, the calendar year—by the nineties, the newspaper business was undergoing tremendous change. The entire media industry was undergoing tremendous change. Television was feeling the full impact of the technological revolution. Newspapers had been undergoing for many years a lot of technological changes, but really stood on the brink of a whole new era, the era when not only were we beginning to lose readers, but in an era where there was some uncertainty about what the newspaper of the future would actually look like. I think in many ways that uncertainty exists to this very moment. One critic calls it "the smell of death." We are beginning to employ the use of computers in many different ways. There are questions about whether the newspaper of the future will be delivered on paper with ink or will it be delivered by computer.
So I felt in 1991 that events were moving so fast that it was more important, if I was interested in this issue of racial diversity, it was more important to become part of the process than simply to write about it. So at that point I decided to run for vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and I have this past year been elected president of the National Association of Black Journalists, and I've continued to do the column.
The kind of ironic thing about it is that with all of my challenges sometimes in the Post with people who did like my column, who didn't like my column, who tolerated my column, whatever, it seems to all have come full circle in a very interesting way now, because in the recent publication that I mentioned, called "Challenge and Change," on diversity, they talk about me as one of the leading journalists. One of my colleagues came up to me and he said, "Well, we're glad to see that you've been revived." [Laughter.] Reinstituted, you know. And it's very, very typical of the difficulty and challenge of our business, you know. They say in politics there are no permanent enemies, no permanent friends, and in journalism it's always not what you do today, you know, it's what you do tomorrow. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: One of the interesting things you mentioned is being able to turn what could have been rage into something that's constructive. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about Ellis Cose's book on rage that has recently come out, and extrapolate from your experience to some other black leaders who have made achievements but who have not been able to turn their experience into a positive way.
Gilliam: Ellis Cose has recently written a book called The Rage of the Privileged Class, which I think is a very strong book because it so captures the anomaly of some of us who have been really privileged in this society. In my case, having been able to have had the advantage of working at the Post for many years and to make a contribution in some other ways. What he captures is the—what he means in my life is that I'm always challenged to say, "What am I going to do with my experiences?"
The Post is a very difficult place for anybody to work—black or white. It's a very difficult place to work. When I say difficult, not because anybody necessarily sets out to make it difficult. It's very large. Like most newspapers, things move very, very quickly. Newspaper in general are not well managed. I think we've come a long way at the Post and a lot of other newspapers as we have looked toward trying to be better managed in the last few years, but if you look at most of the large newspapers and look beneath the surface, you'll find a lot of unhappy people.
We often say that newspapers have different personalities. Years ago we would joke that the New York Times is run like the Women's Garment Union, and the Washington Post is run like the Democratic party.
With Bradlee, there was something he called creative tension that was the dominant ethos, and that meant that the pressure was always on. Unlike institutions where there is time to plan and to manage, you're always doing it on the run, because each day you've got a product. So the challenge for editors is to try to get that product out at the same time they find ways to deal with people in a humane way. Often these editors have not themselves been trained to do that. So it's an enormous task.
One of the things that the Institute for Journalism Education, whose board I chaired until a few months ago, has done is we have started a management training center. I find that those people who have gone through that management training are much better managers. Incidentally, Ellis Cose, whose book I began talking about, was formerly the director of the IJE management training center and a former president of IJE, so he has a deep understanding of some of these.
I find that we live in a very angry society. Black people are not the only ones who are angry. My own analysis is that a lot of the racial horror and chaos in this country comes from a lot of anger that white people feel, and blacks are such an easy scapegoat. So you have a lot of problems that never really get addressed. But from my perspective—and I certainly have a lot of anger—I find that the more I'm able to channel that anger in some constructive ways, such as working with the Institute for Journalism Education, working now as president of the National Association of Black Journalists, that it becomes a much healthier situation for me.
What Ellis Cose talks about in his book about the rage of the privileged class is the double (sometimes triple) standard that not only exists in America that is so particularly infuriating to black middle-class people, because in the twenty-five or thirty years that we have now been part of the mainstream, blacks, especially of my generation, came in knowing that we had to assimilate. I think there's a difference in attitude now, because people are saying, "We want to come in and make a contribution, but we don't want to adapt to your ways." But for that generation of us who were the first to come out in the sixties, you know, and become involved in the mainstream, we always knew that we had to be bicultural, but I think many people really tried to adapt. Now a thirty-five-year-old Hispanic woman journalist might hear the adaptation theory, and throw up her hands and say, "It is not about that. It's about each of us bringing to the table the strengths of our culture and seeing what we have in common and working to make the whole stronger."
So it remains a very big problem with a lot of people of color, this issue of the anger they feel and how they deal with it. As I said, I have come up with a lot of personal coping techniques, but it still is a very, very big issue, and I expect it to remain so until we begin to get some racial honesty in this country. I think we in the media have to be a part of bringing that racial honesty.
That's one of the reasons I think diversity of all kinds is so important in media in particular, because media is supposed to be the social glue, the mirror, and if the mirror is really not reflecting reality, then what you get is a distorted, grotesque picture. I think what happens is until you have the people who are inside who can fairly accurately reflect the diversity, then you're going to always have this kind of distortion. Unlike the problems that may arise if you're simply manufacturing widgets or chinaware, when you manufacture ideas, when you manufacture analysis of the news, when you manufacture perspectives and points of view, then the impact is so
enormous, because you shape the agenda that all Americans really see reality by. So to me it's a big challenge to really try in my small way to do what I can.
Moorhus: Terrific. Talk about Africa and what your first trip to Africa meant to you and perhaps about subsequent trips.
Gilliam: My first trip to Africa was the summer after I graduated from Columbia. I was a part of a group called Operation Crossroads Africa. I think my first agenda was to go and to return to Africa. I'm sure at least part of my agenda was to see a man that I had met a few years before, who was African. [Laughter.] But seriously, it was really a tremendous experience at that point.
The summer of 1961 was a summer in which there was a tremendous amount of activity in this country. As I said, John Kennedy had just come into the White House. There was this whole feeling of Camelot and change. On the continent of Africa, there was also the beginning of independence movements. Operation Crossroads Africa had been started by a black minister from Harlem named Reverend James Robinson, and his idea was that if we wanted to have some understanding between Africans and Americans, there had to be some level playing ground in which they could get to know each other. So our group was bound for Kenya. Once again I found myself in a minority, because I think there were seventeen members of our group and I think there were three blacks as a part of that group. Most of the people paid their own way. Those of us who couldn't afford to pay our own way were given some help and some stipends.
It was a shocking trip to me in so many ways. First of all, I had never been in a country where black people did everything. I mean, we landed in Nigeria, and there were blacks who were not just the porters—that's what you saw in most places in America, especially coming from the South. You didn't see blacks who were salespeople at the airline ticket counter, you know. You didn't see blacks who were supervisors. Blacks were not in the natural flow of life. I didn't grow up seeing that. And so this was a situation where suddenly everywhere I looked, there were black people doing all these things. That was very just reassuring to me. It was a very wonderful feeling, because it was like for the first time I didn't feel like this outsider. I think very often you don't consciously feel like an outsider because you've grown up in this milieu. That's part of the struggle. That's part of the reality. But it was like here is another way people live and exist. So that was very—I still remember getting that first ride into Nigeria, from the airport into Lagos, and just seeing black people everywhere and just feeling so overwhelmed by it.
In all of the Operation Crossroads Africa group, there were probably two or three hundred of us going to different countries. We were all college students, recent graduates. Some of the white people were so thrown by this experience of being in a black country that they just became unnerved culturally, and they had to be sent back home. [Laughter.] There weren't many, but there were a few, you know. It just was like too much. So you see that we all have these crazy distortions, you know. We're all distorted by our environment.
We went to Kenya. Kenya at this point was still a predominantly white country—I'm sorry. Independence had not come, and the people who had the money and the power were white. Kenya was very, very beautiful, six thousand feet above sea level, wonderful climate, and the English just loved it. So that was one of the places—everybody used to hear about the white highlands. That's where people would go for their safaris, etc. When I arrived in Kenya in '61, whereas in Nigeria there had been some progress toward independence, Kenya was still in the beginnings of independence. So everywhere people were talking about freedom—"Uhuru! Uhuru!" They would hold up two finders in a "V." The leader was still in prison, and his name
was Jomo Kenyatta. The summer I was there, Kenyatta was actually released from prison, so that was a stellar moment.
What we did in Kenya was to build a long road leading from the main highway back to a children's hospital. We also built a children's library. These are obviously not the kind of libraries and things that you would see here. We had several manual projects. It was a learning experience for all of us. I remember there were a lot of these big strapping boys from Harvard, you know, who'd had milk from birth, and lots of vitamins, and they would sometimes look at the Africans who just didn't seem to be able to work as long as we did, and say, "Why aren't they doing more?" We all had to realize that they did not have those same diets. They didn't have the plenty that this country had. So it was sensitizing in little ways, because we had to talk to each other and say, "The reason you can work from morning till night is because you've had wonderful nutrition all your life, and here are people who didn't have that."
So it was in many ways very wonderful. When I don't romanticize at all, I also realize how painful it was. It was painful to be in a black country as a black woman and still feel the sting of segregation, because once again the Brits treated Kenya like their private domain. I remember once three of us, two of the white Crossroaders and I, were hitchhiking into town, because we were out in a small rural area, and so we were hitchhiking from Rwanda back to Nairobi, and couldn't get picked up because I was with them. They always got picked up when they were by themselves, by some of the white settlers.
The Africans in East Africa were not accustomed to seeing black Americans, so they couldn't quite figure out who we were, and that was a psychological letdown, because you think you're going home again and I realized that I was American, albeit an African-American! So I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn't romanticize it anymore, that there were many things that were very important to me. I was not one of those people who chose to stay on in Africa afterwards. I was tempted to stay and really try to move around and travel in some of the other countries, but the practical side of my nature took over, and I knew I had to come back and try to get a job and start a career. That's when I came back and went to work for the Post.
Moorhus: One of the things I noticed in the pictures is that there was a point in your life when you had an afro.
Gilliam: Oh, yes. Right. In the sixties. In the sixties and the seventies, actually. That was a big deal when I decided, you know, no more pressing of my hair, and I'm going to go natural. Everybody had a lot of hair back then, whether it was white people had long their kind of hair, and we had long our kind of hair. But the releasing thing about it was that it was natural, it was not pressed. It took me a long time. I wrote about it and agonized, but when I finally did that, I felt it was just very, very free.
What happened is really interesting. When I went back to the Post, my hair was totally natural and short, and I was really fine with it. I think the whole process of going back to pressing my hair, relaxing, using relaxers and things on my hair, was one that seemed very different when I went back to it. I had to be talked into it, basically, by my hairdresser, who told me my hair was being—he said, "You just can't wear your hair like this forever. You've got to learn to—either you're going to have to braid it or something." I used to just wear it kind of out there. Then I would cut it very short and then I'd look for a different style to wear. But he said, "You really are not giving up your identity if you do something different with your hair," and he just talked and he coaxed. "The ends are breaking." So he made it into a health-conscious decision. [Laughter.] I still even today am a little self-conscious about the fact that I do my hair,
that I relax my hair. Both my younger daughters have natural hair. Two of my three have natural hair, and I often say that it's something I may one day go back to.
Moorhus: Good. Thank you.
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