The late Dr. Dorothy I. Height was a central figure in both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Dr. Height’s contributions and accolades are numerous, and yet still fail to capture the weight of her significance over the fight for equal rights.
Height was born on this day in 1912 in Richmond, Va., but raised in Rankin, Pennsylvania, catching the activism bug early after joining anti-lynching campaigns in school. An excellent speaker, Height won a oratory competition that landed her a college scholarship to Barnard College. The school denied Height entry due to a policy that only allowed two Black students at a time. Instead, she enrolled in New York University in 1929.
Height earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from NYU and studied at Columbia University before becoming a social worker. Height then began working at the Harlem YWCA in 1937, which ended up changing her life forever. There, she met educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women, Mary McLeod Bethune, along with then First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Height joined the NCNW and was mentored by Bethune.
In 1946, while at the YWCA, Height helped lead an integration effort at all of its centers. Height became the NCNW’s president in 1957, a post she held for the next four decades. During that time, she also helped establish the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice and ran it until 1977.
Her work at the Center connected her closely with some of the rising civil rights figures of the time including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney Young, John Lewis, James Farmer and others.
Height was one of the organizers of the 1963 March On Washington and stood next to Rev. King as he delivered his stirring speech. Despite her skills and involvement, Height was not asked to speak and that was indicative of the role many women played in the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1986, Height established the Black Family Reunion event in a bid to strengthen the family unit in Black communities. The event is still held to this day, and Height was a fixture at each of them up until the time of her death in 2010.
Among Height’s many honors, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton. In 2004, then-president George W. Bush awarded Height with the Congressional Gold Medal. According to the New York Times, Height became close with President Barack Obama who reportedly named her the “Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Height died on April 20, 2010. She was 98.