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Donor Stories

"My hope is that my gifts expand access to the study of journalism to those who couldn't otherwise afford it."

Photo of Dorothy Butler Gilliam

"A commitment to fighting for diversity in the media has been
central to my life and career."

A wish and a dream

Dorothy Butler Gilliam '61JRN was the first African American female reporter to be hired by The Washington Post. She was the former president of the National Association of Black Journalists and, in 2010, received the Washington Press Club's Lifetime Achievement Award. Now she is advancing the cause of her life with a gift to fund scholarships at Columbia Journalism School.

From Civil Rights to Columbia

In September of 1957, Gilliam was working as a junior writer for the Tri-State Defender—an African American weekly in Memphis—when one of the biggest events of the era, the integration of Little Rock Central High School, began to unfold just a couple hundred miles away. She made the trip to cover that story and, after returning to Memphis, was offered a job at Jet magazine in Chicago—the nation's premier black weekly.

Gilliam spent several years as a writer for Jet but could not shake her dream of writing for a daily newspaper. The problem was, most of the dailies in this very segregated industry were the domain of whites, and she had been turned away more than once because of her race. So she decided on another path to the newsroom: she would build up her credentials by attending graduate school. Columbia was her top choice.

On her first attempt, Columbia would not recognize some of the prerequisites she had taken at the historically black Lincoln University. So she left Jet, moved to Alabama, and enrolled at Tuskegee University with the assurance that the courses there would satisfy the requirements. Columbia admitted her the following year.

Gilliam remembers her time at Columbia as both challenging and life changing. "Classes were nine-to-five every day, so they were long, intense days," she recalls. "We put out a newspaper. We took turns as editors and picture editors. We covered New York the way reporters covered New York. The whole city was our beat, and it was a great way to learn the business. A lot of the professors were active journalists."

The early 1960s were different times, both in the nation and at Columbia. Gilliam found out decades later that the alumnus who had interviewed her for admission had noted in her file that she was "dark skinned." Also, she and her female classmates suspected there was a quota for women, as there were only fifteen of them in their class of eighty or so students.

"Being black and a woman was especially trying," she says. "In fact, as I was graduating, a professor said to me, 'You have so many handicaps, you'll probably make it.' That was quite a valedictory. I think he was trying to be kind, but I've never forgotten that."

In the face of it all, Gilliam grew tremendously as a journalist and as a person while at Columbia. She made lifelong friends whom she credits with giving her the cultural nurturing she needed at that point in her life. "In many ways, my year at Columbia really was a very seminal experience for me," she says.

Committing to a Cause

In the 1970s, Gilliam co-founded the Institute of Journalism Education, now the Maynard Institute, to train African Americans and people of color for careers in the newsroom. She still serves on the organization's board.

"A commitment to fighting for diversity in the media has been central to my life and career," she says. In keeping with that dedication, Gilliam has included a gift in her will to fund need-based scholarships at Columbia Journalism School.

She is also making a gift to her undergraduate alma mater, Lincoln University, noting that its school of journalism was originally established to avoid integration at the University of Missouri.

"My hope is that my gifts expand access to the study of journalism to those who couldn't otherwise afford it," says Gilliam. "Through scholarships they'll gain training in the fundamental skills and tenets of the profession so they can be truth tellers, covering the realities of America's communities so that change can occur."

Gilliam's book, Trailblazer: A Memoir by the First Black Woman Reporter at The Washington Post, details her extraordinary life including her time at Columbia in the early 1960s.

Have you included Columbia in your estate plan or named the University as beneficiary of a retirement account or life insurance plan? Please let us know! We'd like to honor your commitment now and welcome you as a member of the 1754 Society.


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