March 24, 1912
Dorothy Height's career as an activist and reformer has been dedicated to working for African Americans through women's organizations, ranging from girls' clubs and sororities to the YWCA and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Height was born in Richmond, Virginia; her family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, when she was four. In this mining town she and her family were active in the life of their church and community groups. As a young woman Height participated in local girls' clubs and the YWCA, moving into leadership at a young age. This was the beginning of her successful combination of religious and community work, part of a long African-American tradition.
Height graduated from New York University in 1932. She was able to complete the degree in three years through hard work and the support of an Elks scholarship. During this period she also took on a number of part-time jobs in restaurants, in a factory, in laundries, writing newspaper obituaries, and doing proofreading for Marcus Garvey's newspaper, Negro World. She then spent an additional year at the university to earn a master's degree in educational psychology. From there she took a position as assistant director of the Brownsville Community Center in Brooklyn and became involved with the United Christian Youth Movement. She traveled to England and Holland to represent her group at Christian youth conferences in 1937; she was also introduced to Eleanor Roosevelt and helped Roosevelt plan the 1938 World Youth Congress held at Vassar College.
From 1935 until 1937 Height was a caseworker for the New York City Department of Welfare. In the wake of the 1935 Harlem riots, she became the first black personnel supervisor in her department. Seeking a position that would give her a broader range of work experience, she left the Department of Welfare in 1937 to work for the Harlem YWCA as the assistant director of its residence, the Emma Ransom House. In this position Height gained expertise in issues facing many African-American women in domestic labor and learned to administer a community-based organization. She also became involved with the NCNW through her friendship with Mary McLeod Bethune.
In 1939 Height accepted the position of executive secretary of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C. She also began to work with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, encouraging both organizations to improve the lives of working African-American women. Her outstanding efforts led Height to a position with the national board of the YWCA in 1944. She was involved in organizing the YWCA's watershed conference in 1946 at which the organization took a stand for the racial integration of its programs. From 1947 until 1956 she served as president of Delta Sigma Theta, making it an international organization in addition to expanding its work at home.
Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1957. Under her leadership the NCNW, an umbrella group for a wide variety of black women's organizations, became an active participant in the civil rights struggles in the United States. She also involved the YWCA in civil rights issues through her position as secretary of the organization's Department of Racial Justice, a job she assumed in 1963.
Although she was moderate in her approach to the question of civil rights, Height has never ceased her activities in search of equality. Her commitment has been to a struggle carried on through the widest possible range of organizations, and so she has served as a consultant to many private foundations and government agencies. She was a major force in moving the YWCA to be true to its 1946 declaration on interracial work. At the group's 1970 convention, she helped to write a new statement of purpose for the YWCA, declaring its one imperative to be the elimination of racism.
Through Dorothy Height's involvement, the YWCA has taken many steps forward in its attitudes and actions concerning African-American women. The organization's full commitment to integration and parity in its operation owes much to her work. She continues to guide the NCNW, and has made it an important voice in articulating the needs and aspirations of women of African descent around the world. In 1993 she was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1996, in a break with moderate colleagues, she addressed the Million Man March. In December 1997 Height resigned from the National Council of Negro Women.
In 2003 Height published her memoirs, Open Wide the Freedom Gate. In 2004 she received the Congressional Gold Medal and was honored by Barnard College, seventy-five years after being turned away from the college.
Giddings, Paula. In Search of Sisterhood. New York: Morrow, 1988.
Height, Dorothy. Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir. New York: Public Affairs, 2003.
Hill, Ruth Edmonds, and Patricia Miller King, eds. The Black Women Oral History Project. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1991.
judith weisenfeld (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005