Dorothy Irene Height, civil rights and women’s rights activist, was born March 24, 1912. The main issues she concentrated on were unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness. She was the president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for 40 years and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, but moved with her family to Idaho, Pa., a steel town suburb of Pittsburgh, where she graduated from Rankin High School in 1929. She was admitted to Barnard College, but upon arrival was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two black students per year. She enrolled instead at New York University, earning an undergraduate degree in 1932 and a master’s degree in educational psychology the following year. She pursued further postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work (predecessor of the Columbia University School of Social Work).
At the age of 25 she began a career as a civil rights activist, joining the NCNW. She fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women. In 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA. In 1957, Height was named president of the NCNW, a position she held until 1997. During the 1960s she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the North and South to create a dialogue of understanding. Height was also a founding member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. In his autobiography, civil rights leader James Farmer described Height as one of the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement, but noted that her role was frequently ignored by the press due to sexism.
Height encouraged President Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government. Beginning in 1965, she wrote a column called “A Woman’s Word” for the weekly African American newspaper the New York Amsterdam News.
In 1990, Height, along with 15 other African Americans, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. Barnard recognized Height for her achievements as an honorary alumna during the college’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2004.
The musical stage play If This Hat Could Talk, based on her memoirs “Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” debuted in 2005. The work showcases her unique perspective on the civil rights movement and details many of the behind-the-scenes figures and mentors who shaped her life, including Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Height was the chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the largest civil rights organization in the U.S. She was an honored guest at the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20, 2009, and was seated on the stage. After her death at the age of 98 (April 20, 2010), Obama ordered flags to be flown at half-mast in her honor.
Adapted from Wikipedia.