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William H. Dilday Jr., history-making Black executive in TV, dies at 85

William H. Dilday Jr. was the personnel director at WHDH-TV and part of an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in Boston media when he was offered the chance to make history at a different TV station in the early 1970s. Photo courtesy of the Dilday family.

William Dilday was the personnel director at WHDH-TV and part of an organization dedicated to increasing diversity in Boston media when he was offered the chance to make history at a different TV station in the early 1970s.

The catch was that it would mean moving to the South, a part of the country he had come to dislike during childhood visits to relatives in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, when he faced blatant segregation and racism up close.

Undaunted, Mr. Dilday took the job in 1972 at WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., where he was the first Black general manager of a network-affiliate station in the country and carried on his shoulders the hopes and aspirations of colleagues and many others.

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“The one thing I’m most aware of is the fact that being here in Jackson, in a job that historically was a white man’s job, there are a lot of Black folks in the city and the state who have the feeling that it’s not just me running the station. It’s them,” he told Ebony magazine the following year. “Whether I fail or succeed, it’s not just me, it’s them. I do feel that kind of pressure once in a while, but 99 percent of the time, I don’t think about being the only Black manager in the country. I think about getting the job done.”

Mr. Dilday, who in 1975 was among the 44 founders of the National Association of Black Journalists, died Thursday in Newton-Wellesley Hospital of complications from a fall. He was 85 and lived in Waltham.

“Founder Dilday’s years of dedication to creating spaces for Black journalists and visibility for the Black community is what made him a trailblazer in our industry and an NABJ gem,” said Dorothy Tucker, the association’s president, in a statement. “He will never be forgotten.”

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Brought in to run an NBC-affiliate where pervasive racism on-air and in employment practices had resulted in the previous ownership losing its broadcast license, Mr. Dilday rapidly instituted changes that increased to 30 percent the number of Black staff members.

“I think that’s something all the stations in this country are going to have to do,” he told Ebony in 1973. The nation’s broadcast media, he added, has “some catching up to do.”

Innovations during his leadership included the hiring of Black reporters to run news shows and the creation of a children’s program hosted by a Black woman.

Viewership and advertising revenue increased during Mr. Dilday’s tenure, which lasted nearly a dozen years, and WLBT topped rivals in broadcast ratings.

His appointment as general manager followed a legal action brought by the United Church of Christ. The liberal Protestant denomination criticized the station’s historic racist practices, and challenged the Federal Communication Commission’s decision to let the previous owners keep a broadcast license.

The church’s efforts prompted a court decision that blocked the renewal of a broadcast license for WLBT’s owners.

Mr. Dilday was named general manager, a position he held during years of negotiations over who would hold the license. A nonprofit operated WLBT during much of his tenure.

Within four years of his arrival, the station received a Peabody Award for “Probe,” its half-hour documentary investigative series.

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The show’s reporting on power politics in Mississippi “underscored what can be done when aggressive and responsible management utilizes quality news personnel to achieve ends which serve both community and state,” the Peabody citation said in 1976.

The citation added that “this type of programming excellence reflects” Peabody Award standards for “meritorious service to the listening and viewing public.”

Some white viewers criticized Mr. Dilday for making sweeping, immediate changes.

“He had death threats all the time,” said his brother James of Dorchester. Letters laden with the N-word, he said, would arrive at the station telling William “to go back home.”

One night Mr. Dilday was working late at the station when the phone rang. Someone asked for him and then “called him all kinds of names and said he was coming down to shoot him,” James said.

“And Bill said, ‘OK, come on down, but remember that when they made guns, you didn’t get the last one.’ I said, ‘Billy, did you really tell him that?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I didn’t have a gun, but I wanted to scare him.’ He did not let them intimidate him.”

The oldest of three brothers, William H. Dilday Jr. was born in Boston on Sept. 14, 1937, and grew up in the South End.

His parents were Alease Virginia Scott Dilday, a homemaker, and William Horace Dilday, a Pullman porter.

During his childhood and teen years, Mr. Dilday traveled occasionally with his mother and brothers to visit relatives in North Carolina and Virginia, where his parents lived before moving north as part of the Great Migration of Black Southerners. He was angered by what he saw.

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“He felt that segregation slapped him in the face when he was a boy of 12-, 13-years-old,” his brother James recalled. “He had an absolutely 100 percent bad taste in his mouth about the South.”

After graduating from English High School, Mr. Dilday received a bachelor’s degree from Boston University, where he met Maxine Carol Wiggins, an art student.

“One of my dad’s friends thought my mother was pretty, but he was afraid to go up and talk to her, so my dad said, ‘I’ll talk to her.’ And then he ended up liking her and dating her,” said their daughter Erika of New York City.

Mr. Dilday, who served in the Army from 1960 to 1962, married Maxine in 1966. After they moved to Mississippi, she was involved with arts programing in Jackson and running a concert hall.

In Greater Boston, Mr. Dilday had worked as an operations supervisor at IBM, a personnel and public relations manager at a defense contractor, and WHDH-TV’s personnel director.

After running WLBT in Jackson, Mr. Dilday worked as an executive at another Mississippi TV station, as a newspaper executive, and as president and chief executive of Kerimax Communications in Jackson.

“He was a larger than life personality for both me and my sister,” Erika said.

She said her father “also was someone who taught us how to be good people,” letting his children know that “if you want to make change, you don’t have the luxury of being comfortable. He would always step into the middle of a fray if he wanted to achieve a goal.”

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In addition to his wife, Maxine, his daughter Erika, and his brother James, Mr. Dilday leaves a son, Scott Sparrow of San Antonio, Texas; another daughter, Kenya of New York City; another brother, Clarence of Roxbury; and four grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 9 in St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Roxbury.

“My brother was very, very smart, and he was always a leader,” James said. “He was always looking to further the progress of people of color.”

On Tuesday, James and Clarence — both attorneys — joined William at a restaurant where they spent hours together, “just laughing, talking, eating lunch,” James said.

That evening at home, Mr. Dilday stumbled and injured his head. He died two days later.

“The important thing was that the three of us were together Tuesday and we had a great time,” James said. “We have a picture of the three of us from that day, which is something that I will always cherish.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.