Born in Richmond, Virginia March 24, 1912, Dorothy Irene Height provided leadership for nearly half a century, in the struggle for equality and human rights for all people. Her life exemplifies her passionate commitment for a just society and her vision of a better world.
Educated in public schools in Rankin, Pa, a borough of Pittsburgh, where her family moved when she was four, Height established herself early as a dedicated student with exceptional oratorical skills. After winning a $1,000 scholarship in a national oratorical contest on the United States Constitution, sponsored by the Elks, and a record of scholastic excellence, she attended New York University and earned her bachelor and master’s degrees in four years. She did postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
Accomplishments and Contributions
- In 1933, Height became a leader of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America in the New Deal era. It was during this period that Height’s career as a civil rights advocate began to unfold, as she worked to prevent lynching, desegregate the armed forces, reform the criminal justice system and for free access to public accommodations.
- Height was named to deal with the outcome of the Harlem riot of 1935. Height was an organizer and served as Vice President of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. In this capacity she was chosen as one of 10 American youth delegates to the World Conference on Life and Work of the Churches in Oxford England. Two years later (1939), she was a representative of the YWCA to the World Conference of Christian Youth in Amsterdam Holland.
- 1937 was the turning point in the life of Dorothy Height. She was serving as Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA when Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, noticed young Height who was escorting Eleanor Roosevelt into the NCNW meeting. Mrs. Bethune invited Height to join NCNW in her quest for women’s rights to full and equal employment, pay and education.
- In 1938, Height was one of 10 American youth invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to spend a weekend at her Hyde Park NY home to plan and prepare for the World Youth Conference to be held at Vassar College.
- Height served in her dual role as YWCA Staff member and NCNW volunteer, integrating her training as a social worker and her commitment to rise above the limitations of race and sex. She rose quickly through the ranks of the YWCA, from the Emma Ransom House in Harlem to the Executive Director of the Phyllis Wheatley Association in Washington D.C. and to the National Staff.
- For thirty-three years – (1944 – 1977), Height served on the staff of the National Board of the YWCA of the USA and held several leadership positions in Public Affairs and Leadership Training and as Director of the National YWCA School for Professional Workers. In 1965, she was inaugurated and became Director of the Center for Racial Justice, a position she held until her retirement.
- In l952, Height served as visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India, in the Delhi School of Social Work, which was founded by the YWCAs of India, Burma and Ceylon. She became known for her internationalism and humanitarianism, and conducted international studies and travel to expand the work of the YWCA.
- Height made a study of the training of women’s organizations in five African countries: Liberia, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria under the Committee of Correspondence.
- Height was elected National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1947 – and served until l956. She carried the Sorority to a new level of organizational development, initiation eligibility and social action throughout her term. Her leadership training skills, social work background and knowledge of volunteerism benefited the Sorority as it moved into a new era of activism on the national and international scene.
- In l957, Height was elected fourth National President of NCNW and served until l998 when she became Chair and President Emerita.
- In 1960, Height was the woman team member leader in the United Civil Rights Leadership along with Martin Luther King, Whitney H. Young, A. Philip Randolph, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins and John Lewis.
- In 1961, while Height was participating in major Civil Rights leadership, she led NCNW to deal with unmet needs among women and their families to combat hunger, develop cooperative pig banks, provided families with community freezers and showers, etc..
- In 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Height with Polly Cowan, an NCNW Board Member, organized teams of women of different races and faith as “Wednesdays In Mississippi” to assist in the freedom schools and open communication between women of difference races. The workshops which followed stressed the need for decent housing which became the basis for NCNW in partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to develop Turnkey III Home Ownership for low income families in Gulfport Mississippi.
- In l970, Height directed the series of activities culminating in the YWCA Convention adopting as its “One Imperative” to the elimination of racism.
- In 1970, Height established the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement in New York City to prepare women for entry level jobs. From this experience in 1975, Height in collaboration with Pace College established a first-time Associate Degree for Professional Studies (AAPS) – now incorporated as a regular professional studies degree course at Pace University.
- In l975, Height participated in the Tribunal at the International Women’s Year Conference of the United Nations in Mexico City. As a result of this experience, NCNW was awarded a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to hold a conference within the conference for women from the United States, African countries, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. This was followed with a site visit with 50 of the women to visit with rural women in Mississippi.
- Under the auspices of the USAID, Height lectured in South Africa after addressing the National Convention of the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa near Johannesburg (1977).
- Height led a crusade for justice for Black women and since l986 worked to strengthen the Black family. Under her leadership:
- In 1966, NCNW achieved tax-exempt status.
- In 1974, NCNW dedicated the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in Lincoln Park, Washington D C; the first woman on public land in the Nation’s Capital and to an African American or woman of any race.
- Developed model national and community-based programs ranging from teen-age parenting to pig “banks” – which addressed hunger in rural areas – and were replicated by many other groups.
- Established the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first institution devoted to black women’s history; and established the Bethune Council House as a national historic site.
- Height placed NCNW on a course of issue-oriented politics, sponsoring “Wednesdays in Mississippi” when interracial groups of women would help out at Freedom Schools; voter registration drives in the South; and established communications between black and white women.
- Established the Black Family Reunion Celebration in 1986 to reinforce the historic strengths and traditional values of the Black family.
Awards and Honors
Dorothy I. Height has received awards and citations including the:
- John F. Kennedy Memorial Award
- Hadassah Myrtle Wreath of Achievement
- Ministerial Interfaith Association Award
- Ladies Home Journal – Woman of the Year
- Congressional Black Caucus – Decades of Service
- President Ronald Reagan – Citizens Medal
- Franklin Roosevelt – Freedom Medal
- Essence Award
- Camille Cosby World of Children Award
- Caring Institute – Caring Award
- NAACP – Spingarn Medal
- National Women’s Hall of Fame
- President Bill Clinton – Presidential Medal of Freedom
- On Height’s 92nd birthday March 24, 2004, President George W. Bush presented her the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian and most distinguished award presented by the United States Congress.
She has received thirty-six Honorary Doctorate Degrees from universities and colleges such as: Tuskegee University, Spelman College, Pace University, Bennett College, Lincoln University, Harvard University, Howard University, Princeton University, New York University, Morehouse College, Meharry Medical College, Columbia University.