Bonnie Newman Davis, a longtime journalist who spent years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and later taught the craft at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wanted to confront a puzzling thought.
“Why did her students know so little about the contributions Black female journalists have made over the years?” asked Davis, who became managing editor of the Richmond Free Press last summer.
Maybe her students knew of the late “PBS NewsHour” star Gwen J. Ifill, but that was about it. So she decided to put together a book, “Truth Tellers: The Power and Presence of Black Women Journalists Since 1960,” highlighting the Black women journalists who were instrumental in breaking down color barriers and creating a robust, influential network that could help aspiring journalists.
She came up with a list of two dozen names since 1960 and, together with two other journalists, interviewed many of the women and wrote biographies about them. Their stories are intriguing and inspirational, reflecting just what the women went though trying to get into newsrooms. They're also are a good way to learn and reflect about some of the most important years in U.S. history and the profound difference they made.
Davis notes that the impetus for hiring Black female journalists came out of the massive Kerner Commission report (1968) ordered during a national effort to explore why inner-city rioting had become prevalent in the civil rights era of the 1960s. One recommendation? Hire more Black female journalists.
Even then, the journalists already had pioneers to follow. Dorothy Butler Gilliam was a Columbia University graduate who managed to wangle a job at The Washington Post in 1961 – the first Black woman to do so. Her situation was tough, though: When she went out on assignment, taxi drivers often refused to pick her up. Plus there was backbiting in the newsroom due to skin color.
But Gilliam prevailed and went through a string of assignments before retiring from the Post years later. Other outlets that finally accepted Black women included The New York Times, CBS, Chicago Tribune, and USA Today among many others.
Since the 1970s, newspapers of all sizes started acting as recruiting grounds. According to Davis, one of them was The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which some might find curious considering its editorial page had pushed segregation in the 1950s.
Robin Farmer, for instance, was involved in a special program at the University of California at Berkeley to train minorities. She then worked for the Hartford Courant, followed 17 months later by a phone call from Earle Dunford, the longtime city editor at the Times-Dispatch. Farmer headed south in 1988, where she began an extensive career in newspapering. She married Michael Paul Williams, the Times-Dispatch columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2021.
“Overall, Farmer’s newspaper journalism career included more highs than lows” including award- winning work on an investigative team, Davis writes. Unsurprisingly, Farmer says she was “beyond elated” when her husband took home journalism’s top prize for commentary.
Another woman in the book, Diane Graham Walker, worked as a reporter and eventually as the television anchor for years at WWBT NBC12, before retiring in 2021. Walker, who grew up in Richmond, sadly ended up investigating the shooting death of her own younger brother, Billy Graham, who was mortally wounded in 2005 as he was jogging near public housing. Walker’s reporting led to a confession by the gunman.
There are plenty of incidents throughout the book that display the racial prejudice Black reporters faced on a regular basis; for example, a source once told Walker that she would not let a Black person inside her house. Also, Walker says that the Chesterfield Police Department seemed to be targeting her for minor traffic infractions. On one occasion, an officer started screaming at her after pulling her over, she recalls. She was so scared that she called his supervisor, who quickly showed up and apologized. More recently, it’s been common to find racist remarks on social media.
Overall, Davis’s collection of to-the-point biographies of Black female journalists offers important context and valuable history lessons. The idea of pulling this all together is a great and necessary one. Through these inspiring stories, the author steadily makes the case that Black female journalists have long been building support structures successfully and without much fanfare. Though still outnumbered today, they continue to make it easier for younger generations, which deserves recognition. I highly recommend this book.
Davis will hold a Zoom conference on the book in late December. Details to be announced.