Dorothy Irene Height
March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010
Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Virginia to James, a building contractor and Fannie, a nurse. When Height was four-years-old, she moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, a town of about six thousand residents located eight miles outside of Pittsburgh. In this new environment, Height was able to attend integrated public schools. Suffering from severe asthma as a child, Height was not expected to live past the age of 16. Proving this false prophesy wrong, Height began participating in voting rights and anti-lynching campaigns while still in her teens.
Height rose to prominence as a gifted orator in high school and won a scholarship after competing in a national championship. As a strong student, Height applied and was accepted to Barnard College but had her admission revoked shortly before the start of classes. The school explained that it had met its quota for Black students and thus had changed its mind about her admission. Refusing to return home defeated, Height visited New York University where she was immediately admitted and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in psychology. This experience in part motivated her fight to eliminate discrimination.
Following graduation, Height began her first job as a caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department. In 1937, she joined the staff of the Harlem YWCA and began working on initiatives to improve conditions for women around the city. One of the first programs was a push to curtail what was referred to as “slave markets” in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Black women who worked as domestics would gather on street corners where they would be selected and paid 15 cents per hour by suburban housewives. She later played a key role in the organization’s national desegregation of its establishments in 1946. And she also founded the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice which she would lead until 1977.
While escorting Eleanor Roosevelt to a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) meeting, Dorothy Height crossed paths with Mary McLeod Bethune. During the event Height came to the attention of McLeod Bethune who would later become her mentor. While still working at the YWCA, Height began volunteering at the NCNW and later became president of the organization in 1957.
Her leadership roles at the YWCA and NCNW coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. As a result, Height worked closely with prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement and became an important figure in her own right. Height implemented programs in the South such as providing poor Black families with pigs and organizing meetings that brought together interracial groups of Northern women with interracial groups of women in Mississippi.
Dorothy Height was also a key organizer of the March on Washington, though sexism within the Movement prevented her (and other women) from speaking on the stage that day. The experience was eye-opening and led to her more formally joining the push for women’s rights. Along with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm, Height would establish the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
Height believed that strengthening the Black community would aide the push for economic independence and stability as well as better meet the needs for social welfare. In 1986, she launched the annual Black Family Reunion which celebrated and promoted African-American history, heritage, and customs. The event would go on to draw hundreds of thousands of attendees each year.
Dorothy Height retired from the YWCA in 1977 but would continue to lead the NCNW and be socially active until the 1990s. Over the years she would receive several medals and awards as well as honorary degrees from multiple institutions. 75 years after being turned away from Barnard College, Height became an honorary graduate and received an apology from the school.
- “Dorothy Height.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. September 13, 2019. https://www.biography.com/activist/dorothy-height.
- “Dorothy I. Height (U.S. National Park Service).” 2019. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. March 19, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/people/dorothy-i-height.htm.Fox, Margalit. 2010.
- “Dorothy Height, Largely Unsung Giant of the Civil Rights Era, Dies at 98.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. April 20, 2010. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/21/us/21height.html.Jackson, Errin. 2019.
- “Dorothy Irene Height (1912-2010).” BlackPast. BlackPast. July 30, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/height-dorothy-irene-1912/.
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