Kathlyn Joy Christian Gilliam, civil rights activist and the first African American woman to serve on the Dallas Independent School District’s (DISD) board of trustees, was born on October 16, 1930, in Campbell, Texas, to Ross and Lucille (Donaldson) Christian. Her father was a railroad worker, and her mother was a homemaker. When Kathlyn was sixteen, her family moved to Dallas where she graduated from Lincoln High School in 1948. Kathlyn Christian married William E. Gilliam in 1949. They had three children—Deborah Joyce, Constance Anne, and Edward.
Inspired by her own mother’s involvement in community affairs, Kathlyn Gilliam played an active role in the fight for civil rights in Dallas, especially in the realm of education. Throughout the 1960s she served as the last president of the Dallas Council of Colored Parents and Teachers before that organization dissolved. She was also an officer in the Texas Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers as well as a member of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers. She ran for a seat on the DISD board in 1971 but lost. That year she served as a plaintiff in a desegregation federal lawsuit and subsequently was appointed to the Tri-Ethnic Committee, a federal court-appointed group that monitored and reported on the desegregation of Dallas public schools. She was taken off of the committee the following year, however, because of her employment with the Dallas Legal Services Project, which was still involved as one of the plaintiffs in the 1971 federal lawsuit.
Gilliam was a proponent of court-ordered school busing as a measure to facilitate desegregation, however, her white colleagues considered busing a much too radical response. This opposition prevented her election to the school board for several years before her nomination. In 1974 she was elected to the DISD board of trustees and was the first African American woman to hold this office. She later became the first black woman elected president of the board and served from 1980 to 1982. Gilliam revoked her support for busing in the early 1980s after its perceived failure to improve access to education for students of color. She ultimately believed mandatory busing caused more problems than it solved and increased anti-black sentiments throughout the city. She served on the DISD board until 1997.
Gilliam belonged to several civil rights organizations in Dallas. She was a founding member of the Political Congress of African-American Women, the Black Coalition to Maximize Education, and the Selena Butler Institute. In the 1970s served on the Advisory Committee to the Texas Constitution Revision Commission. She also worked for Dallas Legal Services, and Concerned Black Parents and Citizens Council. After her tenure on the DISD board, she established Clean South Dallas/Fair Park Inc., an anti-litter and beautification initiative.
Kathlyn Joy Christian Gilliam died from cancer at her home in Dallas on December 11, 2011. She was eighty-one. Her last public appearance was at the dedication ceremony of the Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy which was named in her honor in October 2011. The city of Dallas designated the Gilliam House as a historical landmark in 2015, and it was turned into a museum and resource center later that same year.