This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany its documentary, THE AMERICAN DIPLOMAT. Written by Dorothy Butler Gilliam and edited by Ben Greenberg.
By Dorothy Butler Gilliam
When I came to Washington as the first Black woman reporter at The Washington Post in 1961, Carl Rowan was already one of my heroes. I knew he had enormous talent, and he had displayed courage and brilliance in covering some of the most important national and international issues of the day.
Our paths crossed socially and professionally as we wrote about some of the same issues. While Rowan and I both worked as journalists in Washington, his focus was on national and international affairs, and mine was primarily local. Still, he was an inspiration to me throughout my career.
I first met Rowan in 1957 while he was covering “The Little Rock Nine” — the Black students selected to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was a 20-year-old reporter at the Tri-State Defender, a Black newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee. My editor, L. Alex Wilson, had already told me that he didn’t want to send me to Little Rock, saying it was too dangerous because I was a rookie and a “girl.” After I saw television coverage of Wilson being savagely beaten by an angry white mob of Little Rock parents, I went there anyway to spend a few days reporting.
I knew that Rowan had been one of the few reporters employed by the white press writing about race relations in the South long before others followed suit. For years, it had been the exclusive story of the Black press, who often had to sneak into towns in the evening, their typewriters wrapped in clothes, as white sheriffs and others often were all too eager to beat or even kill them.
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Dorothy Butler Gilliam is a former reporter, editor, columnist, author and educator, who made history as the first African American female journalist hired by The Washington Post. Gilliam began her journalism career in 1957, as a reporter for The Memphis Tri-State Defender, a black weekly, where she covered the integration of Little Rock Central High school by the Little Rock Nine. She has been a reporter of, and advocate for, civil rights and social change ever since.