William Hilliard blazed a trail from Oregonian’s first black employee to editor-in-chief
‘I want to believe that over the years, scores of young people of color have looked at me and said, ‘It can happen’ ‘
William A. Hilliard’s early attempts to become a journalist were met with resistance at every turn, yet he would leave a lasting and profound impact on the craft.
As an 11-year-old, he was rejected by The Oregonian for a newspaper delivery route because there was a fear the readership wouldn’t want to see a black boy delivering their news. Years later, at the University of Oregon, Hilliard said, a white professor tried to persuade him to choose another career because the business wasn’t receptive to people of color.
At either of these moments, Hilliard could have backed away from his pursuit of a career in journalism. But had he done that, he wouldn’t have become The Oregonian‘s first black employee, first black reporter, first black executive editor, first black editor-in-chief, and in 1993, the first black president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), now the American Society of News Editors.
That same year, Hilliard received the National Association of Black Journalists’ presidential award, for advocating for diversity and civility and serving as a role model.
On Jan. 16, Hilliard, who retired in 1994 after a 42-year career, died in Portland, Oregon, of congestive heart failure at 89.
“The thing that bothers me more than anything else is what I see as more and more racial divisions in the country today,” he said after becoming ASNE president. “And I think newspapers are the ideal educational tool to correct it.”
After attending three colleges, Hilliard went back to The Oregonian, the same newspaper that had denied him that delivery route, and was brought on as a copy assistant in 1952 at age 25.
His first beat was in sports, although he was the only member of his section not to cover a game. Hilliard moved into a general assignment reporting role, and from there, he became a religion reporter and city editor.
“Bill was always breaking barriers,” Judson Randall, one of Hilliard’s friends and an assistant city editor during Hilliard’s tenure, told The Oregonian. “He came of age during a time when people of color were marginalized in the mainstream media. He had tenacity in seeking what he wanted. He did it in a way that was never pushy, but it was always firm.”
In 1982, Hilliard became executive editor and five years later, he was promoted to editor-in-chief. Under his leadership, The Oregonian refrained from identifying people by race in its crime reports and did not use the names of sports teams that were insensitive to ethnic or religious groups.
Hilliard reasoned that using racial identifications in crime stories only perpetuated negative stereotypes. Using team names such as the Washington Redskins “damage the dignity and self-respect of many people in our society,” he said, and the “harm far transcends any innocent entertainment or promotional value these names may have.”
When The Oregonian and The Oregon Journal merged, Hilliard oversaw the transition. He was also the leader of the paper when The Washington Post scooped it on a story about 10 women who had accused Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood of sexual harassment. The list included a reporter at The Oregonian, whom Packwood had kissed on the lips.
“Don’t underestimate what Bill did in putting that staff together after the merger,” said John Harvey, former news editor at The Oregonian. “Before the merger, the paper made a lot of money, but the owners ran it as if we were in the Depression. We couldn’t spend money. Overnight, the news hole grew by 80 percent. He was the editor during what I would call the paper’s fat years, when the paper devoted whatever resources were needed to cover a story.”
During Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter’s first presidential debate in 1980, Hilliard was one of four reporters to question them.
“I want to believe that over the years,” Hilliard said, “scores of young people of color have looked at me and said, ‘It can happen.’ ”
Hilliard was born in Chicago in May 1927, the son of Felix Hilliard and Ruth Jackson. His parents divorced during his infancy, and his mother sent Hilliard and his three sisters to Arkansas to stay with their grandparents. When his mother remarried, the children went to live with her in Portland.
Hilliard moved in with his neighbor, Stephen Wright, who owned the only hotel for black people in Portland, after his parents moved to a different section of Portland. Wright would mentor Hilliard and push him to pursue his passion, especially after his first job out of college was working as a porter.
After working on his high school newspaper, Hilliard served in the U.S. Navy. He then studied journalism at Vanport Extension Center (now Portland State University) and the University of Oregon. Hilliard became the editor of the paper at Pacific University.