Height, Dorothy (1912—)

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Height, Dorothy (1912—)

American organization official who worked on behalf of civil and women's rights. Born Dorothy Irene Height in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912; daughter of James Edward (a building contractor) and Fannie (Burroughs) Height; graduated from Rankin High School, Rankin, Pennsylvania; New York University, B.A. and M.A.; attended New York School of Social Work; never married; no children.

Distinguished for her untiring work as a champion of civil and women's rights, Dorothy Irene Height served over three decades as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which, founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935, had as its mission "to unite middle- and upper-class black women in humanitarian causes and social action programs." Trained as a social worker, Height spent most of her professional career with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), where she rose to the post of associate director of leadership training services and director of the Office for Racial Justice.

Raised in the small mining town of Rankin, Pennsylvania, where her family moved in 1916, Height spent much of her early life in church. "My mother, who was a nurse, did a lot of work through the church missionary society," she told Maria Eckman of the New York Post (April 18,1972). "I sort of followed her around and got into the idea of organizing clubs." Height was an exemplary student all through school; in high school, she was a prize debater and, at 5'9½", a center on the basketball team. Upon graduation, she applied to Barnard College but was turned away; the school had already reached its self-determined limit with two black students. Height ended up at New York University, graduating in 1933, with a master's degree in educational psychology. She spent her early career as a caseworker in the New York City Department of Welfare and took courses at the New York School of Social Work in order to strengthen her background.

In 1937, Height began working with the YWCA, where she steadily rose through the executive

ranks, becoming director of the Emma Ransom House in New York City, and then assuming the executive directorship of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, D.C. There, she also joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, working on a national project aimed at increasing job opportunities for black women. Height became president of the sorority in 1944, and during her nine-year tenure expanded the organization's focus to include the relationship between black women in America and in Third World countries. Height also assisted in the formation of an international chapter of the sorority and, on the home front, helped organize bookmobiles and a series of nationally broadcast town meetings.

In 1957, after stepping down as head of Delta Sigma Theta, Height became president of the National Council of Negro Women, where she became a driving force in a variety of economic, political, and social issues affecting black women. Under her leadership, the organization sponsored training sessions, conferences, and career meetings for young people and focused attention on problems of educational inequity and teen-age pregnancy. During the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, the NCNW held voter registration drives in the South and voter education drives in the North. In conjunction with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they also raised funds to aid students who postponed college to participate in the struggle.

In the 1980s, the organization was involved of the revival of black family life through the recognition of historical, traditional, and cultural values. In 1986, Height founded the "Black Family Reunion Celebration," intended to counter negative images of black life depicted in the media. The Wall Street Journal praised the celebrations as possibly "the best thing that ever happened to the black under-class." Height has led the council in numerous other projects, including the publication Black Woman's Voice and the establishment of the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement, an information center for minority women in nontraditional jobs. She was also largely responsible for the erection of the Bethune Memorial statue, the first monument of an African-American ever erected in a public park in Washington, D.C.

Height, who never married, lived for many years in a Harlem apartment, where she loved to cook both soul food and unusual foreign dishes. Her other interests include reading, music, and singing coloratura in vocal groups. She has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the John F. Kennedy Memorial Award of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Elks Lovejoy award, and the 1966 Ernest O. Melby Award of the Alumni Association of New York University's School of Education. In 1994, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's greatest civil honor.

On September 15, 1998, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou , and Jessye Norman , among others, gathered at the Grand Hyatt Washington to pay tribute to Height who was given less than her share of recognition as a leader at the center of the struggle. "She was there every step of the way," said John Lewis, but "the leadership of the civil rights movement was very chauvinistic." Height was unconcerned: "If you worry about who is going to get credit, you don't get much work done."


Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1972. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1972.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

"Unsung Heroine," in People Weekly. October 19, 1998, p. 107.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts