Killen retired in 2015 from The Oregonian/OregonLive, after 41 years in journalism, 27 of which were spent at The Oregonian. He lives in Portland.
If the Portland Public Schools board of directors is serious about renaming some of its schools to honor a broader, more diverse range of people, it should strongly consider naming one of them after William “Bill” Hilliard.
Hilliard, as many older Oregonians will remember, was editor of The Oregonian from 1982 to 1993, having worked his way up through the ranks after being first hired as a copy boy in 1952.
Born and raised in Portland and a graduate of Benson High School, he was among the first African Americans in the country to serve as the editor for a large American newspaper. He worked hard to diversify the staff of The Oregonian during his years at the helm of the paper and in 1992, he directed that the newspaper would no longer use Native American themed team names in its sports pages or elsewhere in the paper.
The decision, widely seen as bold and controversial at the time, helped spark a national discussion that has persisted for three decades.
After Hilliard’s decision, several other publications, high schools and universities around the country began to reconsider their use of such nicknames. There’s little doubt that his courageous move can be traced forward to the recent decision by the NFL’s Washington D.C. franchise to drop the racial epithet that the football team used for nearly 90 years; and to the fact that the Cleveland franchise in Major League Baseball is considering dropping its nickname as well.
But that was far from Hilliard’s only accomplishment. He saw to it that the paper hired more minority staffers, promoted women and also, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “championed tolerance for gays and lesbians.”
“It is imperative that our newspapers reflect the multiculturalism of America,” he told a group of journalists. “Let’s respect the sexual orientation of others.”
He also saw how important it was for newspapers to reflect the broad range of communities they covered, overseeing The Oregonian’s expansion of coverage of the Portland suburbs and outer regions of the state as well as the city itself.
Hilliard encountered many of the obstacles routinely thrown in the path of African Americans trying to make a life for themselves in the United States. When he tried to become a paper boy for The Oregonian as a youth, he was rejected “for fear that white subscribers would resent” having him distribute the paper, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. Then, after being accepted at the University of Oregon, a professor there told him he was wasting his time in trying to pursue a career in journalism because of his race.
But Hilliard didn’t give up. He transferred to Pacific University in Forest Grove, earned a degree in journalism, and started his own small paper, covering Portland’s Black community. Finally, when he was 25, The Oregonian hired him as a copy boy, an entry level position for reporters in those days. Eventually, he was promoted to sportswriter before moving to the first of several news side reporting beats.
In 1965, he was named an assistant city editor and in 1971, ascended to the key role of city editor.
Later, as editor, he not only guided The Oregonian but also helped smooth the merger of the Oregon Journal and The Oregonian in the early 1980s. Hilliard in 1993 became the first African American to be named president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
When Hilliard retired, he did not retire from his interest in journalism. In 2002, he was among the journalists named to investigate plagiarism allegations at USA Today. Hilliard died in 2017.
If school names are intended to help inspire the students who attend them, it’s hard to imagine a better name for a Portland school than one honoring the life and achievements of Bill Hilliard.
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