Dr. Dorothy Irene Height
Born March 24, 1912 in Richmond, VA, Died April 20, 2010 in Washington, DC
She hardly ever got her name in the paper.
That honor was reserved for people like the so-called “Big Six” of the Civil Rights movement – Asa Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, James Forman, Whitney Young and Martin Luther King, Jr. – and for Malcolm X, the firebrand outsider. In other words, it was reserved for the men.
But Dorothy Height was never overly concerned about the lack of acclaim. Indeed, she advised her colleagues to “stop worrying about whose name gets in the paper and start doing something about rats, and day care and low wages… We must try to take our task more seriously and ourselves more lightly.”
It was a philosophy that guided her through six decades of work in the cause of human freedom. When she died, Height, a tireless toiler for African-American and women’s rights, was lauded by no less than the president of the United States, a black man whose historic ascent to that office owed no small debt to her labors. Dr. Height, said President Barack Obama, was “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
She entered life as a severely asthmatic child whose parents, a building contractor named James and a nurse named Fannie, were warned she would not live past 16 years. At roughly the time of her predicted demise, however, Height, whose family had relocated to Rankin, PA not far from Pittsburgh, was volunteering for voting rights and anti-lynching campaigns and honing her speech-making skills.
As a high school senior, she won a national oratorical contest, sponsored by the Elks, with a speech on the 13th, 145h and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, the ones that, respectively, outlawed slavery, guaranteed citizenship and conferred voting rights for African Americans. Her prize was a four-year college scholarship.
Height was accepted at Barnard College, but when she showed up for classes, she was informed that she would not be allowed to enroll. The school had two Negro students already; to admit her would be to push it past its quota. Height left Barnard and went straight to New York University, where she was admitted on the spot. She would earn a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in psychology from that school.
Height became a caseworker with New York City’s Welfare Department and an officer of the Harlem Christian Youth Council under Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church. One of her earliest assignments was to visit a record shop and ask the owner to hire African Americans. His response was to invite them to try at the furniture store up the street on the theory that it was impossible to shoplift a couch, but his records were another matter.
“Well,” said Height many years later, “I came alive at that point. And I tell you, he put something into me.”
In 1937, Height joined the YWCA as its assistant executive director, where she spoke out against the exploitation of African-American day workers who congregated on street corners hoping to be hired by white suburban housewives, for whom they labored for about 15 cents an hour. Accompanied by African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt toured the facility not long after Height joined. Bethune, impressed by the younger woman’s poise became a mentor; Height joined the National Council of Negro Women, which Bethune had founded in 1935
She would become president of the NCNW in 1957, while still an executive with the YWCA. In 1946, she oversaw the integration of that organization’s facilities. In 1965, she established its Center For Racial Justice. Between 1947 and 1956, Height was president of Delta Sigma Theta, an international sorority of African-American women. In 1971, Height would join Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Betty Friedan, to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Height was on the dais close to Martin Luther King at the 1963 March on Washington when he delivered his storied “I Have A Dream” speech but, despite her accomplishments and her own oratorical gifts, she was not invited to speak that day. No woman was.
Under Height’s presidency, the National Council of Negro Women was a muscular and creative advocate for African-American rights. The organization sponsored voter registration drives and inaugurated “Mondays in Mississippi,” a 1960s program in which groups of black and white women embarked on weekly trips to the Magnolia State to help teach at Freedom Schools and register voters. During the next two decades, the council also ran a “pig bank” under which pigs were given to destitute rural families with the understanding that each family would pay back to the bank two pigs from subsequent litters for use by other families.
In 1986, in response to publicity about the so-called “vanishing” black family, Height and the National Council of Negro Women founded the Black Family Reunion, a joyous three-day celebration of African-American kinship and history that takes place annually on the National Mall.
Height, a statuesque woman who never married, was never seen in public unless impeccably dressed; her array of hats became her signature and the stuff of sartorial legend. She once explained, “I came up at a time when young women wore hats, and they wore gloves. Too many people in my generation fought for the right for us to be dressed up and not put down."
Height’s activism and institution building continued well into her senior years. She was still fighting even when age and infirmity required the use of a wheelchair or walker to do so. As late as 2008, she told the Detroit Free Press, “I'm still working today to make the promise of the 14th Amendment of equal justice under law a reality."
The woman who never got her name in the paper would live to see her work celebrated at the highest levels. She was awarded three dozen honorary degrees, including from Princeton and Tuskegee Universities. She was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton, the Congressional Gold medal by George W. Bush, and was an honored guest of President Barack Obama at his inauguration.
At her death, she was lauded as the “grand dame” and “queen mother” of the fight for human rights. Rep. John Lewis, the last living member of the civil rights “Big Six,” said in a statement: “Today we have lost a great American, a brave and courageous woman who worked tirelessly for the cause of civil rights and social justice.”
But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the woman who never got her name in the paper came from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who said:
"Her loss is felt by all of us who knew her, respected her, and followed in her footsteps. But it's also felt by people who may never know her name -- but for whom she worked, for whom she led, and for whom she made a difference.”
Sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post, Biography.com, The Great Depression (documentary)