Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Leadership: Activism

BOND: Now, how did you become engaged in the kind of work that you do today? I know your history, but what led you in this path? You go to college, you finish, you become almost instantly engaged in this kind of work. Was this a carryover from your youth?

HEIGHT: Yes, I often say that before I was twenty-five, really, my life was shaped. Because I left Pennsylvania to go to college, and when I was in college, I kept searching for a group. I had been very active. I was president of the Pennsylvania Girls' Clubs; of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. I was active in my church. I was active in my school. I was active in so many different levels. But I was able to make a connection with the Christian Youth Movement. And then in Harlem, where I lived, I was active with Kenneth Clark, and a number of us, Jim Robinson and all, we formed the Harlem Youth Council. I was active with Juanita Jackson of NAACP. We formed the United Youth Committee Against Lynching, and so on. So that even during my college days I was very active in these groups, in the 1930s.

BOND: So in a sense you're recreating the organizational atmosphere that you had left behind in Pennsylvania. Did you find in college that there weren't pre-existing groups that you could join?

HEIGHT: Well, you see, when I went to college, you have to bear in mind I went to college in 1929. And when I got there, I found that the groups that were there didn't accept a black person. In fact, some of them, I was even recruited from some when they saw my grades on the wall, but I was turned away when I got there.

But the interesting thing happened, and that was, at City College there were students like James Robinson, Kenneth Clark, and at Union, there was James Robinson, there was John Morsell, also at City College, a group of us at New York University. And what we did, we found each other and we kind of made our own little group. I belonged to the Ramses, and another one -- each one had a name that represented our African heritage. And we gathered together. We weren't seeing ourselves as a caucus. We were seeing ourselves as needing to find ways to get more understanding of who we were. And so when we had Dr. Du Bois just sit and talk with us or Langston Hughes, we just felt we'd had the best time in the whole world.