Washington Post trailblazer Dorothy Butler Gilliam on her career and the future of journalism

Gilliam, the first Black woman reporter at the Post, covered key moments in the civil rights movement, all while being a pioneer for African American women in media.

Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post, spoke Tuesday as part of the Robertson School’s ongoing speaker series. (Joshua Smith, Robertson School)

Reprinted with permission, VCU

By Brian McNeill

University Public AffairsWednesday, Oct. 14, 2020

When Dorothy Butler Gilliam was hired as the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post in 1961, she was driven by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., when he said “Go and make a difference.”

It was far from easy.

“Taxi cabs wouldn’t pick me up when I was trying to get a cab so I could write my story and get back and make my deadline. It was very frustrating. But I had to do it and I had to make it work,” she said. “Sometimes when I went into white neighborhoods, it was an invitation to be abused. One time, [while visiting a home to do an interview] a doorman saw me and he said ‘You can’t come in the front door. The maid’s entrance is around the back.’ I was dressed nicely. I was very professional. But he just couldn’t believe that I was a reporter for The Washington Post.”

Gilliam discussed her trailblazing career Tuesday in a virtual event hosted by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-hosted by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the BND Institute of Media and Culture.

Gilliam, a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists and author of the 2019 memoir “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America,” spoke as part of an ongoing speaker series hosted by the Robertson School. The event was moderated by Diane Walker, an anchor at NBC 12.

Gilliam’s career at the Post spanned a half century, and included time as a reporter, editor, columnist and director of the newspaper’s Young Journalist Development Program. She also has been a TV reporter in Washington, D.C., and a senior research scientist at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, where she founded a program encouraging young people to pursue careers in journalism.

She also has a close relationship with VCU. She served as a Dabney visiting professor in 2000 and was a commencement speaker for the Robertson School when it was called the School of Mass Communications.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FTheRobertsonSchool%2Fvideos%2F343978466913254%2F&show_text=0&width=560Robertson School Speaker Series event with Dorothy Butler Gilliam

‘A front-row seat’


Gilliam’s journalism career began in the Black press. At 17, she worked as a secretary at the Louisville Defender and got her first opportunity to cover assignments when the paper’s society editor was out sick.

“It was a surprise to me that journalism opened doors to just so many new experiences,” she said. “I found that there was a small Black middle class in Louisville that I didn’t know about. These were the doctors, the lawyers, actually the editor of the newspaper. They lived in a certain section of town. My dad was a minister and we lived in the working class section of town. One of the great things about journalism and one of the reasons I’ve been so happy as a journalist is that it opens the door to new worlds. And it gives you experiences that you wouldn’t expect to have. It’s a front row seat to history.”

She attended Lincoln University in Missouri and after graduation was hired at the Tri-State Defender, a Black newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. At that paper, she covered the integration of Little Rock Central High School, which was marked by violence, including the beating of her editor, Alex Wilson, by a racist white mob.

“I was back in the office where he left me covering what was going on in Memphis,” she said. “I looked up on the television screen, a little black-and-white television set in the office, and I saw the news that my boss was beaten by this mob. So I knew that I had to get to Little Rock. So I ended up going to Little Rock, Arkansas, with a photographer and really having the opportunity to cover this violent integration of Little Rock.”

Gilliam later worked at Jet Magazine and studied journalism at Columbia University. The Washington Post’s city editor would routinely visit to interview graduates, she said, and he advised her to get daily newspaper experience and then to come back and talk to the Post about working there. However, the Post’s interest was sparked when they later learned that Gilliam was going to Africa as part of a program called Operation Crossroads Africa that sent Black and white students to African countries to conduct service projects.

“When I told them I was going to Africa, that just seemed to interest them. They said, ‘Well, would you send us something you’ve written?’ And I did,” she said. “And when I came back, I was hired as the first African American woman reporter.”

Clockwise from top left: Diane Walker, anchor at NBC 12; Bonnie Davis, CEO of the BND Institute of Media and Culture; Marcus Messner, Ph.D., director of the Robertson School; and Dorothy Butler Gilliam.

Slights, determination, and James Meredith


As a trailblazer, Gilliam knew there was far more on her shoulders than others in the newsroom.

“I felt I was really showing people a different image of African Americans,” she said. “That was another job that I had, in addition to being a reporter and writing the story. It was also a time to help show the larger public — very often a very prejudiced public — that we, African Americans, were able and willing to do what it takes to really be a part of this nation.”

She experienced slights on a regular basis, she said. Colleagues would be reasonably civil at work and then pretend they didn’t know her elsewhere.

“I knew that if I failed, if I said, ‘This is crazy, I quit,’ then it would have been much more difficult for the next Black woman,” she said.

She added that the first Black man reporter at the Post, Simeon Booker, who was hired in 1952, only worked at the paper for about a year-and-a-half.

“He said, ‘I was getting neurotic. People thought I was sick because I trying to cover stories in a city where even the dog cemetery was segregated,’” she said. “He said it was just too much. So I didn’t want to fail. So I persevered. That is not easy but it is something that we, as African Americans, have to do.”

Looking back on her early years at the Post, Gilliam said the assignment that had the most impact on her was the integration of the University of Mississippi in 1962.

“Mississippi was like a place apart. It was a lynching state. It was a state where Black life was cheap. It was a place where the university was like this bastion of white supremacy,” she said. “And it was very, very difficult to [watch as] this lone man, one person, had the courage to integrate the University of Mississippi. His names was James Meredith. He had been in the Army. And he said he really came back to fight white supremacy.”

That assignment, she said, drove home how different her experience was from other reporters covering the story.

“The white people who were part of the team, they could stay at the Sand and Sea Motel and sit in the lobby and have lunch or dinner and talk about the story and trade ideas, as reporters do,” she said. “But I knew they would not rent me a room.”

Gilliam ended up staying in a spare room above a Black funeral home. “I slept with the dead. I did what I had to do,” she said. “Certainly nobody bothered me.”

At the time, Gilliam was one of just a handful of Black reporters at white newspapers across the country.

“You could probably have gotten all of us into a very small room,” she said. “It was important to make a difference, to show that we could succeed, that we could do the job.”

“[The] doorman saw me and he said ‘You can’t come in the front door. The maid’s entrance is around the back.’ I was dressed nicely. I was very professional. But he just couldn’t believe that I was a reporter for The Washington Post.”

‘We’ve got to make a difference’


Gilliam and other trailblazing Black journalists advocated for more newsroom diversity, but always encountered white editors saying they couldn’t find qualified applicants.

“We knew — the few Black journalists who were there — we knew that was not true,” she said. “We had to just jump into action and start training programs.”

Gilliam co-founded what became the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which today continues to provide training to journalists of color.

“That was our response,” she said. “When we saw a problem that needed solving, we just jumped into action. We said, ‘We’ve got to make a difference.’”

Today, she said, newsrooms continue to need more diversity, as well as more inclusion and acceptance.

“The problems that I faced many years ago were different but there still are many, many issues that need to be resolved,” she said. “It’s important that we keep up the fight, keep up the struggle against those who don’t want us to have inclusion, those who don’t want us to be a part of society.”

“I really want this nation to change dramatically. It’s been 400 years of Black people pushing and taking two steps forward, and then being pushed three or four steps backward,” she said. “We’ve given so much to this country, we’ve sacrificed so much, we’ve served in places where we weren’t wanted but were needed. It is time for a change. It is time for the media to dismantle its systemic racism. It’s time.”

Trailblazer Dorothy Butler Gilliam is BND, VCU, SPJ speaker on October 13

Sep 24, 2020

Dorothy Butler Gilliam will speak at the Robertson School’s virtual Speaker Series event on Oct. 13. (Kea Dupree Photography)

The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture is excited to announce Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post and author of an acclaimed book about newsroom diversity, for its Speaker Series event on Oct. 13. 

The virtual event, co-sponsored by the Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the BND Institute of Media and Culture, is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 13, at 6 p.m. and will be live streamed.

The event will be live streamed as a Zoom webinar. The Zoom livestream will become available on this page at the time of the event. 

You will also be able to view the live stream on the Robertson School’s Facebook page at the time of the event.

Gilliam will be answering your questions during the event. You can submit your questions before the event via this online form. You can also post questions during the evet in the Q&A function of the Zoom webinar and on the Facebook livestream as well as tweet questions during the event with the hashtag #VCURobertson or #SPJVA. We will be asking as many of your questions as possible during the event.

Gilliam started at The Washington Post in 1961 and worked as a reporter, editor, columnist and director of the newspaper’s Young Journalist Development Program during a career that spanned a half century.

She also has been a television reporter in Washington, D.C., and a senior research scientist at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, where she founded a program encouraging young people to pursue careers in journalism.

Diane Walker of NBC 12 will moderate the Speaker Series event.

Gilliam, a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, has a close relationship with Virginia Commonwealth University: In 2000, she was a Dabney visiting professor and a commencement speaker for the Robertson School when it was called the School of Mass Communications.

In 2019, Gilliam published “Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America.” The memoir details Gilliam’s personal and professional experiences and her efforts to increase the number of journalists of color in U.S. news organizations.

The Oct. 13 online event featuring Gilliam will be moderated by Diane Walker, an anchor at NBC 12 and a member of the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame.

Walker, who has received numerous awards for public service journalism and community involvement, is the face of her station’s flagship franchise “12 On Your Side,” which investigates consumer complaints and gives voice to the voiceless.

A special thanks to Mr. Michael L. Harvey of MLH Assets Management for supporting the BND Institute of Media and Culture in this program.

The BND Institute of Media and Culture’s Creative Writing and Summer Media Boot Camp 2020

Creative writing can be a fun and interesting way to improve writing skills. This one-week session will provide writing tools for middle school students as they explore poetry, plays and short stories for blogs, podcasts and videos. Sessions will be led by Bonnie Newman Davis, journalist and journalism educator, and other professional writers and guests. Click here for a sample project.

July 20 -July 24, 2020

10 am – Noon

Virtual Zoom Sessions

Students will need a laptop computer or mobile device that can access Zoom. A limited number of laptops are available for borrowing.

Cost: Free

Limited space available. Call 804 683-7203 for details.

BND Institute Creative Writing & Media Camp Registration

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Sample Project – AKA Future Leaders

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MLH Assets Management

Eric and Sarah James

JB Bryan Financial Group, Inc. & AfroEconomics ™

John Rich

A Black Man’s Quilt: Success!!

I took a course for small business owners last fall and, in explaining to my classmates that I had yet to attract many men to my media institute programs in nearly three years, someone asked why was that the case.

I shrugged. “Probably because they’re watching football,” I replied.

Well, I’m happy to say that a whole lot of men defied my sexist response and showed up last night for my first BND Institute of Media and Culture program of the year, “A Black Man’s Quilt.” The standing-room only event featured Robert L. Dortch, Jr., a minister, philanthropist, executive coach, poet, photographer, fraternity brother, father and more. Some might even call him a Renaissance Man.

During his one-hour presentation, Robert led us on an intimate journey of his life, art, journaling and family. He explored concepts of love and masculinity. He went there with his own failings and feelings. He described his son’s anguished cry the night of the Trayvon Martin verdict. He gave his take on Kobe, Gayle and Snoop. He left many of us pondering our own capacities and humaneness. He gave us ….hope.

Author and motivational speaker Stacy Hawkins Adams, a powerhouse in her own right, did an excellent job interviewing Robert, wielding questions that kept the audience engaged and feasting on his every word. Kym Grinnage, truly a blessing of a friend, provided introductions that only he can deliver with aplomb and panache. Head cheerleader and program sponsor Teshana Gipson rallied moms and dads by encouraging them to send their offspring to my summer media camp June 15-26 at Virginia Union University. Mr.  Michael Harvey“Debonair” Harvey, who always supports my programs with a check and a smile, was there as usual, quietly saying “I got you.” Please know that none of this would have been possible without the work and support of Kimberly Wilson, whose very presence reassured me that I no longer have to toil alone as I work to present unique programming honoring African Americans in Richmond. What an honor to work with this woman who, like me (and Stacy Hawkins Adams), has a string of job titles and manages to seamlessly balance them all. I am forever grateful to her. A huge shout out and thank you to Renee Johnson for bringing members of the Richmond Chapter of Jack and Jill to serve as hosts and hostesses, and for her amazing graphic design skills. My other brother, Darrel Johnson of TidBit catering, is to be commended for delivering a delicious menu when I called him just a few days in advance. Thanks also to Adele Johnson, Faithe M. Norrell and Mary Lauderdale at Richmond’s Black History Museum of History and Culture. Bravo, ladies! And a special salute to all the brothers who proved me wrong. Thanks for showing up and showing out. All, please remember to check out Robert’s photography at Urban Hang Suite through mid-March.

Bonnie Newman Davis

POSTPONED: Black Girl Magic with Tasha Chambers

Dear Friends,

As the impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) increasingly begins to be felt in the local region, we felt it was important to share with you some of the precautions that we are taking to keep you and our community safe and healthy.

Because we’ve always been committed to serving our customers in a safe and healthy environment, we will postpone all scheduled BND Institute of Median and Culture Programs that currently are scheduled for March 15 – April 15, 2020. New dates for planned events will be communicated as soon as we believe it is safe to do so.

Thank you kindly and please be safe and stay healthy.

Sincerely,

Bonnie Newman Davis

Executive Director

BND Institute of Media and Culturepage1image5696

Nothing is more important than the health and wellbeing of our employees and our customers and we want you to know that we are confident in our ability to operate in a safe manner. We will continue to take guidance from the CDC and local health authorities and revise our practices as recommended.

Thank you for your trust in us, and for being a loyal customer.

 Tasha Chambers and some of the innovative Richmond, Va. women featured in her new book of essays, “Women’s Work.” In addition to learning more about Tasha, you’ll also hear from some of Richmond’s most dynamic change agents — women who are getting it done by making things happen! You know their names — Angela PattonAdrienne Cole JohnsonChristy Coleman,  Kelli Lemon,Courtney Glenn and Gill Robinson Hickman. Not only will the evening be filled with delicious dialogue, but lots of laughs and libations, too. 

The event takes place on March 31, 2020 from 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. at 1717 Innovation Center, 1717 E Cary StRichmond, VA 23223.

Click this link to register.

Interested sponsors may contact:

Bonnie Newman Davis, Executive Director, BND Institute of Media and Culture, Inc. @ bonnienewmandavis@gmail.com, or 804 683-7203

About Tasha

Tasha Chambers is an award-winning communications professional. For more than 15 years, she has created innovative programming and communications campaigns for diverse brands. She is a passionate speaker on gender & equality issues, openly sharing her experience navigating through corporate and nonprofit environments. She has spent countless hours researching workplace and entrepreneurial trends for people of color. With a niche in tourism and nonprofit communications, she has been able to elevate local brands to the national stage. She enjoys listening, which has enabled her to pitch amazing news stories that clients sometimes overlook. You can find her clients in The New York Times, Inc.com, The Huffington Post, CNN and more. 

In 2016, Tasha earned a place on Richmond’s (Va.) Power List. She is a Top 40 Under 40 honoree; a proud graduate of Howard University (HU!), where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism; and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. 

Together, she and her husband have three very unique children.

A Black Man’s Quilt

Join us for an evening of real talk about black masculinity, vulnerability, love, intimacy and faith from two relevant and insightful voices.  

Robert Dortch, an emerging photographer and prophetic voice, and Stacy Hawkins Adams, noted, multi-published author, will discuss Robert’s recent “Black Man’s Quilt” exhibit and what it takes for a black man to weave his way through life, faith, fatherhood and love in today’s world.

This important conversation will take place Wednesday, February 19, 2020 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Free Admission.

A reception will follow the program. Register Here

A Black Man’s Quilt

February 19, 2020

 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

122 W. Leigh St.

Richmond, Va. 23220

 Details: (804) 780-9093

Presented by The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia and the BND Institute of Media and Culture, Inc.

Sponsors include MLH Assets Management, LP and Teshana Gipson

POSTPONED: The BNDIMC Summer Media Camp 2020

The BND Institute of Media and Culture’s Summer Media Camp 2020 will take place June 15 – June 26 at Virginia Union University’s Department of Mass Communications, 1500 N. Lombardy Street, Richmond, Va. 23222. APPLY

What is the BND Institute Summer Media Camp at Virginia Union University?

The BND Institute of Media and Culture’s 2020 Summer Media Camp combines journalism and multi- platform media technology for Richmond, Va. -area students in grades 8 through 12 to create and display their work via an online presence.  The camp, now in its third year, is led by Bonnie Newman Davis, M.A. Journalism, who has more than 35 years experience as a newspaper and online journalist and university professor. Working alongside Ms. Newman Davis are several local and national professionals who represent various news media. APPLY

During the two-week camp, students will build their confidence as they learn about media literacy and gain more awareness about their individual and collective communities. This program will tap into and explore students’ creativity, writing, editing and video skills. Students will work with professional media writers, editors, videographers and special guests who will lead them through various aspects of digital storytelling as they examine Richmond’s food deserts.

Besides the technical skills students develop, we include time for field trips to local media outlets and to Washington, D.C. Such outings enlighten our students about news media operations and enable them to meet professionals in an industry in which they one day may work.  APPLY

Virginia Union University’s support of the BND 2020 Summer Media Camp is funded through a grant from the Scripps Howard Foundation. The cost of the camp is $120 per student for two weeks, and students are encouraged to register no later than April 25, 2020. Thanks to our sponsors and supporters, we will be able to offer limited scholarships to interested students. So don’t wait! Apply today!

BND Summer Media Camp Application

Details: Bonnie Newman Davis bonninenewmandavis@gmail.com, 804 683-7203, or visit bndimc.org

Summer Media Camp 2018 NBC12 Video Link: http://bit.ly/2AEb01I

Summer Media Camp Video 2019 

Dow Jones News Fund Dow Jones News Fund Interview 2019

Testimonials: Pending

The BND Institute of Media and Culture was founded in 2016 by Bonnie Newman Davis, a journalist, journalism educator and media consultant. The Institute, located in Richmond, Va., provides programs, services and training dedicated to educating and engaging diverse audiences about contemporary news media and its impact on African-American life and culture. The BND Institute of Media and Culture is a 501 (c) (3) charitable and nonprofit organization.

Kitchen Talk: African-American Holiday Cooking Traditions

Kitchen Talk Group PixIt was an honor and pleasure for the BND Institute of Media and Culture to host three of Richmond’s top culinary experts and entrepreneurs during the second iteration of “Kitchen Talk: African-American Holiday Cooking Traditions” on Nov. 5 at 1717 Innovation Center. Our guests included Herman Baskerville of Big Herm’s Kitchen and Catering, Tye Hall of T&R Catering and Trey Owens of Soul Taco. The program was moderated by Richmond media personality and Virginia Lottery Draw Host Mikki Spencer.

All of our panelists spoke candidly about the hard work that goes into their calling. Baskerville, who honed his craft while working in corporate settings, shared the newfound responsibility that comes with having to provide for his own family as well as his employees’ families.

For the past few years, Big Herm has been one of the only minority food vendors for the Washington Redskins’ training facility in Richmond. Well-known throughout Richmond, Baskerville proudly noted that his take-out and delivery restaurant has been in its current North Second Street location in Jackson Ward for seven years, longer than any of the other restaurants in the “food court’s” corridor.

Further proof of Baskerville’s culinary talents came after the discussion as attendees devoured slices of his mouth-watering fried turkey, macaroni and cheese and string beans.

Hall, who learned to cook under her grandmother’s watchful eye in a Philadelphia speakeasy, recalled how their cooking helped to sustain many in their neighborhood who were on food stamps or had limited resources.

“For me, food just always made sense, especially around the holidays,” Hall told the Kitchen Talk attendees. One of our biggest traditions was candied yams, and my grandmother made them with brown sugar, raisins, pineapples and melted marshmallows on top. So, when I made it for the first time, my husband was like, ‘What the heck are those brown things in the sweet potatoes?’ “

While Hall appreciates her past and the high-profile clients that she often caters to these days, she is careful to maintain boundaries, even to the extent of not posting photos of herself with celebrities. More often than not, “I am conducting business with managers, agents or other administrators,” said Hall, a former nurse and military veteran. “They’re the ones I’m likely to pose with.” In addition to their catering business, Tye and her husband, Reggie, own a budding hemp-based food company, Gourmet Hemp Foods.

Trey Owens opened Soul Taco two years ago with co-owners Nar Hovnanian and Ari Augenbaum. His restaurants, located in Richmond’s Jackson Ward and Shockoe Bottom, recently earned “Best Tacos in Virginia,” from MSN. Soon you’ll be able to catch him on an episode of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” on the Food Network.

Like Hall, Owens also grew up cooking alongside his grandmother. Holiday meals in Richmond were abundant displays.

“For Thanksgiving, it’s the whole dinner –just everything is on the table,” said Owens. “It’s crazy. Growing up, a lot of times most of holidays were at my house… that was the tradition ….just go where all the kids were. For Christmas, we would do breakfast and a traditional thing was rocky mountain oysters. It wasn’t until I got older until I realized what they were and stopped eating them.”

Owens said that when he opened his first restaurant, he prayed that it would be a success. He also burned sage over equipment and other parts of the business, a ritual with Native American roots that is performed to cleanse a space or environment of negative energy and to generate wisdom, clarity and healing.

“It’s one thing to pray for success,” said Owens, “but you also must pray to be ‘ready’ for that success.”

Bonnie Newman Davis

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LOVE. FRIENDSHIP. HEARTACHE. BETRAYAL.

What an amazing evening on Dec. 3, 2019 with authors Sadeqa Johnson and Trevy McDonald who discussed their books before an eager audience at the Libbie Mill Library. Communications strategist Marylinn Minor moderated the program.

Sadeqa, whose works include “Love In A Carry On Bag” and “And Then There Was Me,” has worked with JK Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan and Bishop TD Jakes. Trevy is a prolific university professor contributed to numerous anthologies and publications and co-authored a reference book on starting your own publishing house.

After sharing excerpts from their books, the two authors provided tips about writing fiction and nonfiction works and how to find an editor or publisher. We appreciate Sadeqa and Trevy for joining us and look forward to their return for future BND Institute of Media and Culture “Book Club” events!

Love, Friendship, Heartache, Betrayal

Meet two media mavens who also have mastered the art of fiction writing. Sadeqa Johnson, whose works include “Love In A Carry On Bag” and “And Then There Was Me,” has worked with JK Rowling, Bebe Moore Campbell, Amy Tan anBook Club 2019d Bishop TD Jakes. Trevy McDonald’s books “Round ‘Bout Midnight” and “Time Will Tell” were written while the prolific university professor contributed to numerous anthologies and publications and co-authored a reference book on starting your own publishing house. Please join the BND Institute of Media and Culture on Dec. 3 at Richmond’s Libbie Mill Library for a riveting discussion with Sadeqa and Trevy, who will read excerpts from their books, discuss the writing process, give advice to aspiring writers and sign copies of their books. The program, free and open to the public, begins at 6:30 p.m. Please RSVP at Eventbrite.