A leader in the YWCA and the National Council of Negro Women, civil rights activist Dorothy Height has fostered humanitarian causes and social action issues to promote inter-race and inter-class communications around the world for more than seven decades.
Date of Interview:
Tuesday, December 9, 2003
Born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912, but educated in a small town just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dorothy Height was a dedicated student who won a $1,000 national Elks scholarship in high school for her oratorical skills. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from New York University in just four years before going on to attend Columbia and the New York School of Social Work for further graduate studies.
Height became a young leader in the National Youth Movement of the New Deal era and a YWCA caseworker in Harlem. In 1937, she caught the attention of Mary McLeod Bethune, who encouraged her to join the National Council of Negro Women's effort to seek equal rights, pay, and education for women. Height joined the national staff of the YWCA in 1944 and remained active there until 1977. In 1957, she was elected President of NCNW and served int hat capacity until 1998, when she became Chair and President Emerita.
Height's early leadership experiences evolved into work in the civil rights movement. She began a series of meetings with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s; encouraged President Eisenhower to desegregate schools in the 1950s; and worked alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 1960s, Height organized integrated partnerships for women with a public presence in the schools, known as 'Wednesdays in Mississippi.' Her humanitarian work continued in later decades at the international level as well; she advised and traveled with programs sponsored by the Council to the White House Conference, UNESCO, the Institute on Human Relations of the American Jewish Committee, USAID, and the United States Information Agency, among others.
Height's distinguished service and contributions to the advance of women's rights, civil rights, and human rights have earned her many awards and honors, including the 1993 NAACP Springarn Medal, a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, presented by Bill Clinton in 1994, and a Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2004.
At President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Height was awarded a place of honor on the dais for her nearly forty years of leadership in the National Council of Negro Women. She passed away in 2010 at the age of 98.