Dorothy Irene Height was an African-American activist, administrator and educator, who dedicated her life to seeing racial and women’s equality in the United States. She was a leader in addressing the rights of both women and African Americans as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy, and unemployment.
Height was born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, to parents James Height, a building contractor, and Fannie (Burroughs) Height, a nurse, she moved with her family to Rankin, a town near Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, at the age of four. A severe asthmatic as a child, she was not expected to live to the age of 16.
Height won an essay contest, which brought the prize of a scholarship to Barnard College in New York City. However, when she arrived in 1929 she was excluded because of her race. She later recalled in Open Wide the Freedom Gates: “Although I had been accepted, they could not admit me. It took me a while to realize that their decision was a racial matter: Barnard had a quota of two Negro students per year, and two others had already taken the spots.”
A diligent and dedicated student, Height won an Elks sponsored $1,000 scholarship in a national oratorical contest, which she used to attend New York University where she did an undergraduate and a master’s degree in educational psychology.
After leaving university she became a welfare case-worker in Harlem. During this period she became friends with Langston Hughes and Mary McLeod Bethune founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Bethune became Height’s mentor and the two worked closely together until Bethune’s death in 1955. Two years later Height became the fourth President of the National Council of Negro Women, a post she would hold until 1998. Height also served as National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1946 to 1957. In 1952 Height served as visiting professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Delhi, India.
Height led the NCNW during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. As president, Height helped organize The March on Washington in 1963. She worked with every major civil rights leader of the period including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and A. Philip Randolph. During the 1960s Height coordinated “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” where both black and white women throughout the nation met to discuss racial justice issues. She also personally encouraged President Dwight Eisenhower to desegregate public schools, and urged President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint black women into governmental positions.
Dorothy Height was equally well known for her leadership with the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). She first became a staff member in Harlem in 1944. By 1946 she was elected the National Interracial Education Secretary for the YWCA where she led the effort to integrate all of the facilities of the agency. In 1965 Height became the first director of the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until her retirement from the organization in 1977. In 1971 she joined Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Fredian and others to found the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In 1986, Height organized the first Black Family Reunion Celebration designed to reinforce the strengths and traditions of the African American family. Over the next two decades, the events related to this celebration would attract over 12 million people.
Over the course of her lifetime, Dr. Height became well respected across the nation for her leadership in the campaign for women’s employment, education, and equal pay. She is best known, however, for her efforts on behalf of racial equality. Her awards stretch over half a century. In 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt honored Height with the Freedom from Want Award. In 1989 President Ronald Reagan awarded Height with the Citizens’ Medal Award for distinguished service. President George W. Bush presented Height the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000.
Dorothy Irene Height never married. She died on April 20, 2010 at Howard University Hospital, Washington, D.C.