Dorothy Height

The Grande Dame of the Civil Rights Era

Dorothy Irene Height was born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, but moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, when Dorothy was a young girl. Unlike many children of her generation, Dorothy attended an integrated school. Rankin was ahead of its time in that the races mixed regularly. However, there were still elements of segregation in its neighborhood facilities – for example, there was a white church and a black church. This dichotomy eventually served as a slap in the face to Dorothy. One day in early grade school, her white best friend announced to her that they could no longer be friends because Dorothy was a n****r. Confused, as she had never been called this before, she raced home where her mother gave Dorothy her first lesson in race relations and the world outside of Rankin.

The Heights were regular church goers, and as the family lived across the street from their church, Dorothy was often called upon to run errands or help out. Her mother was also a member of a prominent women’s club and often took Dorothy to meetings. All of which instilled in her from a young age the importance of service. This, coupled with the hatred and acceptance she felt in her own community, pushed Dorothy into action at an early age. She began her fight for civil rights as a teenager, volunteering for campaigns on voting-rights and anti-lynching. She also took to the stage in debate and speech competitions. Dorothy had always been able to speak well and hold the attention of a crowd, a skill which she honed teaching Bible stories to the kindergartners at the white church. 

When she was fifteen she won the Western Pennsylvania High School Impromptu Speech Contest, which meant that she got to compete in the finals in Harrisburg. Dorothy's Latin teacher and principal drove her to Harrisburg for the competition with the plan of checking into a hotel beforehand so Dorothy could get ready. However, upon seeing the color of Dorothy’s skin, the hotel management informed the principal and teacher, who were both white, that they could be accommodated, but that Dorothy was not allowed. Both adults were embarrassed and flustered, but Dorothy stayed calm and announced that she could get ready in the bathroom at the venue.

Dorothy did just that, and presented herself for the competition.  She was slated last on the schedule. This was a benefit as her words would be the last in the judges’ ears, but a deficit as she would have to sit with her nerves through all of the other speeches. She wouldn’t even be able to practice her own speech, as the contestants weren’t given the topic until right before they went on. Dorothy's topic was the Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact of 1928, and she had 10 minutes to prepare her speech. When she stepped out onto the stage she looked across an audience of all white faces and began to speak.

She likened Briand's argument that peace can only be achieved when the people want peace, to how acceptance can only be achieved when the people want acceptance and lay aside their prejudices. She told the story of how Mary and Joseph were turned away from the Inn and how she and her chaperones had been turned away from the hotel earlier that day. When she finished she was met with enthusiastic applause and after the judges conferred, Dorothy was named the unanimous winner.

As Dorothy’s high school career came to an end, she knew that she wanted to attend college. Her family was fairly well off, her father was a builder and her mother was a nurse, but they didn’t have the kind of money to send Dorothy to college without help. So when she saw a poster advertising an oratory contest sponsored by the Elks Club, that awarded a four-year college scholarship to the winner, Dorothy entered.

The topic was the Constitution, and Dorothy spent hours in the library researching, eventually deciding that she would do her prepared speech on the post Civil War reconstruction amendments - 13th, 14th and 15th. She meticulously worked on her twenty minute speech, and breezed through the early rounds of the competition. However, the finals in Pittsburgh proved problematic before she ever took the stage.

When Dorothy arrived at the venue, a boy was already there claiming that he was the finalist from Dorothy’s region. As Dorothy was the only black contestant present, it didn’t seem likely that the judges would pick her to compete over the white boy. Not one to give up easily, Dorothy borrowed money from her mother, and called one of the Elks' officials who had personally sent Dorothy a letter of congratulations for winning her region. The official declared that not only was Dorothy the winner of her region, but that he would declare the entire competition null and void if the judges did not let her compete.

After much discussion, the judges decreed that both Dorothy and the boy would compete. Unfortunately, this was not the only stumbling block. All of the previous competitions required a twenty minute speech. However, this one only allowed a ten minute speech, and if the speaker went over their time allotment, they would be immediately disqualified. Frantically Dorothy worked to shorten the speech she had perfected over all of the previous competitions. She was able to get her speech to the correct length, honing in on her main idea that these amendments were enacted to deliver the constitutional rights that had been withheld from former slaves, and guarantee that those rights would be bestowed on their descendants.

The all-white panel of judges declared Dorothy the winner and awarded her a four-year college scholarship.

With her victory securely in hand, Dorothy wasted no time in applying to colleges. She was accepted to Barnard College in New York City. However, the summer before she was to start classes, she received word that the Dean needed to meet with her immediately. Having been given no idea what the meeting was about, Dorothy packed her acceptance letter and boarded a train for New York. Upon arrival, she was shown into the Dean’s office where she was informed that although she had received an acceptance letter, she would not be able to start in the fall. She could start the following fall if she wanted too, but that year’s class had already met its quota of Negro women – two.

Dorothy was devastated. The only thing worse than having to put off college for a year, would be having to tell everyone back home. So she gathered up her belongings, and made her way to New York University (NYU). She didn’t have an application or her high school transcripts, but she explained her situation and handed over the letter of acceptance to Barnard. NYU accepted her on the spot, and once more Dorothy was enrolled to begin classes in the fall.

Dorothy excelled at school and took as many courses at a time as she was allowed, enabling her to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in education in three years’ time. As she had been awarded a four-year college scholarship, and not one specifically for an undergraduate degree, Dorothy contacted the Elks Club to ask if she could use the fourth year of her scholarship for graduate studies. Thankfully they agreed with her logic, and allowed her to pursue graduate work for her fourth year. She remained at NYU and received a master’s degree in psychology.

While still in school, Dorothy began her first job for a church organization in Harlem that tried to help the community. By now it was the Great Depression, and everyone was struggling, especially the poor. In her position, she became acquainted with the businesses and the residents of Harlem and gained their trust. So when a supervisor working for the Social Welfare department met Dorothy, she wasted no time in trying to recruit her. As the pay was significantly better, Dorothy became a caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department. 

She was of course assigned to Harlem, and assigned with the task of following up with the very first people to be granted welfare to ensure that they still qualified for the aid. While she had been exposed to poverty and prejudice in her previous job, it was nothing compared to what she saw as a caseworker. She worked tirelessly to try to help people while dealing with the governmental red tape and the newness of the department – it had been established as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Dorothy eventually left the welfare department and took a job at the Harlem Young Womens’ Christian Association (YWCA).

Working at the YWCA Dorothy was given a well-established platform to help women in the community. In the late 1930s, Dorothy became the Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA. First on her agenda was to address the “slave markets.” Black women, primarily domestic day laborers, would gather on corners in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, and wait for well to-do white housewives to drive by and pick them up for a day of work. These women were paid pittance and often treated poorly. However, they had no recompense because if they spoke up for themselves, the white housewives would simply hire someone else. Dorothy testified before the New York City Council about this practice, and was so well spoken that issue made national and international news. This was enough to drive the market away for a time, but without a more equitable solution to put in place, it eventually popped up again. 

In 1937, Dorothy met two women who would open doors for her to bring her fight for equality to a national stage. The YWCA hosted a meeting of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which was attended by Eleanor Roosevelt and the council’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. Dorothy acted as their escort, and caught the eye of both women. Bethune took Dorothy under her wing becoming her mentor and Dorothy wasted no time in joining the NCNW. It was likely Bethune’s influence that led Dorothy to lobby Eleanor Roosevelt to encourage her husband to fight on behalf of the civil rights of black citizens. Her pleas were so insistent, that President Roosevelt awarded Dorothy the Freedom from Want Award in 1944.

Two years later, she was elected as the National Interracial Education Secretary for the YWCA. In this role, she spearheaded the campaign to desegregate all YWCA facilities nationwide; a task that would take several decades. In addition to this campaign, Dorothy was an active member in the NCNW and in 1957 she was elected as the Council’s 4th president. As president she focused the NCNW on voter’s rights. They fought to make voter registration in the South more accessible to blacks, and began voter education programs in the north, so that civil rights workers travelling to the south would know what to do to help. The NCNW also established a scholarship program so that student civil rights workers could more easily attend college.

Between her work for voting rights and desegregation, Dorothy had positioned herself as one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Dorothy championed not only civil rights but women’s rights. Historically, the women’s rights movement focused on white women’s rights and the civil rights movement focused on black male rights, leaving black women out in the cold. Dorothy pulled a chair up to the table to fight for both, becoming the first person to ever combine the two struggles into one. 
That table was populated with the men who would become known as the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement – Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney M. Young Jr. Technically they should have been known as the “Big Seven,” because Dorothy was part of their group. However, because she was a woman, she was often denied credit for her work and was literally cut out of photos used in newspapers. Because of this, Dorothy learned to stand in the center of photos next to one of the prominent men, so that it would be impossible to cut her out.

This group of seven devoted themselves to projects of national importance. Each of them vowed to personally attend meetings that would be held every six weeks. In this way, no matter how busy each individual became, they would have to stop and refocus to keep the groups objectives on track. As part of her work with the Big Six, Dorothy became one of the chief organizers of the March on Washington and can be seen in photos only a foot or two away from MLK Jr. which he was giving his, “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite the fact that Dorothy was one of the main organizers, and an award winning speaker, her male counterparts refused to schedule any women to speak that day. In the end, one woman, Daisy Bates, did wind up speaking, but she was a last minute addition. 

Looking back, historians site the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as the official end of the Civil Rights Movement. Dorothy however, didn’t stop there. In 1965, Dorothy founded the YWCA Center for Racial Justice. She was the Center’s first director, and held that position continuing her fight until 1977. Even though Dorothy was often denied credit for her work, her activities were so numerous during the Civil Rights Movement that she couldn’t be ignored and eventually came to be known as the Grande Dame of the Civil Rights era.

Dorothy continued her fight for minorities through the late sixties and the seventies. She served on the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. She also served on a number of lessor known local, state and government committees as a social services expert. Dorothy urged President Eisenhower to desegregate public schools, and championed appointing black women for governmental positions to President Johnson. 

In 1971, she worked together with Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm and Betty Freidan to found the National Women’s Political Caucus, with the aim of helping women increase their presence in the political arena. In 1974, she was named to the National Council for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Through this council, she helped publish the Belmont Report which helped establish the ethical principles and guidelines of using human subjects for research. This report was largely in response to, and an indictment of, the inhumane treatment of the black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Dorothy also extended her social service work for women to South Africa. She visited in 1974 with Margaret Hickey and again in 1977 with the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa. Dorothy would make this trip several more times through-out her life.

The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) flourished under Dorothy’s leadership receiving multiple grants that went towards providing training programs for teenagers, vocational training for women, and helped create food cooperatives in rural areas. The NCNW also launched a program called, “Operation Women Power” to help women open their own businesses.

In the Deep South, the NCNW started a Pig Bank where they gave a free pig to poor black families. As many of these families lived in rural communities this was a popular program. Dorothy also helped found “Wednesdays in Mississippi.” This program flew interracial teams of Northern women to Mississippi to speak to groups of interracial women in the South. The Civil Rights Movement had brought to light just how great of a communication disconnect existed between the North and the South, and this program was hoping to bridge some of that gap. The seventies saw the NCNW grow to such an extent that a national planning and administrative staff of over ninety people was created.

After 40 years with the YWCA, Dorothy retired in 1977, allowing her to shift her full focus to the NCNW. In the mid-eighties, she introduced a series of “Black Family Reunions.” Because of slavery and the great migration, most black families lacked familial ties outside of their immediate families. The reunions were intended to bring communities together so that they could celebrate their heritage as African-Americans and find ways to help each other. In addition to food and entertainment, there were booths offering free blood-pressure and other healthcare checks, youth employment services, and family planning information. Over one-hundred thousand people attended the first Black Family Reunion in Washington D.C. in 1986. In the following two decades, celebrations related to this event cropped up around the country with over 12 million people attending, and they are still held annually.

This theme of black self-reliance stayed with Dorothy. She spoke out about the stereotypes of black people relying solely on government handouts and welfare. She pointed out the fact that for most of American history blacks were slaves, and once they had their freedom they were denied basic services and privileges in both the North and the South. Services such as healthcare, insurance, affordable housing, jobs that paid minimum wages, easy access to food, etc. Because of this, black communities have long had to rely on themselves, and often go without. Dorothy also turned to the black communities themselves to encourage them to become more independent and to fight against some of their biggest obstacles like drug abuse, illiteracy and unemployment.

Dorothy’s last act as president of the NCNW before retiring in 1997, was to secure funding to purchase the historic Sears House in Washington D.C. for the NCNW’s national headquarters. This location held especial significance, as it was once one of the busiest slave markets in Washington D.C. Dorothy believed that making it the home of the National Council of Negro Women was a stirring reminder about how far they had come. Though the initial funding had been secured, there was still a hefty mortgage on the building. In true Dorothy Height fashion, she turned her 90th birthday party into a fundraiser to pay off the mortgage. Both Oprah Winfrey and Don King contributed.

Over her lifetime, accumulated innumerable awards and achievements for her work. She was awarded the Citizen’s Medal Award for distinguished service from Ronald Reagan, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Bill Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal from George W. Bush. Dorothy was inducted into the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame, the Democracy Hall of Fame International, and received the National Association of Social Workers Lifetime Achievement Award. She received three dozen honorary doctorates - including from Harvard, Princeton and Tuskegee – and after being turned away 75 years earlier, Barnard College named her an honorary graduate in 2004. And somewhere in the middle of all of that, she had time to write a memoir, entitled Open Wide the Freedom Gates.

Dorothy Height fought for civil rights for almost eight decades, and in January 2009, she had a place of honor on the dais when Barack Obama took the oath of office as President of the United States. Dorothy died in Washington D.C. on April 20, 2010 at the age of 98. Her eulogy was given by President Obama. On February 1, 2017, the United States Postal Service revealed a Dorothy Height forever stamp to honor her legacy of service. Her stamp is the 40th in the Black Heritage collection. Many in attendance wore purple corsages as a tribute, since that was her favorite color. 

“I have been in the proximity of, and threatened by, the Klan; I have been called everything people of color are called; I have been denied admission because of a quota. I've had all of that, but I've also learned that getting bitter is not the way.”
—Dorothy Height 
*Originally appeared on Patreon