Dorothy Height

Dorothy Height

"Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his [or her] goals."

  Illustrated by  Kate Pugsley

Illustrated by Kate Pugsley

Legendary civil rights activist, Dr. Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1912. She moved to a Pittsburg suburb with her family, during "The Great Migration" when many blacks were forced to leave the extremely inhospitable South. Height's mother was a nurse and her father a craftsman. In their new neighborhood, there were not a lot of other black families, and her mother was not able to find work as a nurse. She cleaned houses for income, and Dorothy would later say that her mother's calm resilience in this time was a life-long inspiration. Her mother would say, "No matter what happened, hold yourself together, Dorothy."

They lived next door to their church and Height spent much of her time singing and working there. Church inspired her to value her black heritage, and her mother also provided books for her to learn about their history. Height was a great student, and was involved in every organization and sport available at her high school. She wrote the official school song for Rankin High. She formed a singing group called "The Jolly Three" and was able to make money off the group's performances to pay for college.

Though she excelled in school, she still faced many challenges due to her race. During a senior year trip to compete in a national oratory competition in Harrisburg, PA, she was denied entry to the hotel that her white teacher had booked for them. The hotel had not realized she was colored. Holding herself together, Height showered at the Y, put on the dress her mother had made specially for her, and stepped into the room filled with thousands of people, all white, and gave her speech for the competition. She won first place, a college scholarship.

Height was accepted to Barnard College, and was excited to start taking classes in New York City. However, when she arrived and went to enroll in classes, she was informed that there had been a mistake, and the maximum two black students that Barnard could accept had already arrived. Since she was already in New York City, she moved in with relatives, began taking classes at NYU and immersed herself in the vibrant culture of Harlem. The Harlem Renaissance was well underway and Height met many of the major players. She and Langston Hughes became close, and he encouraged her to explore her artistic side.

She worked at Marcus Garvey's paper and credited that experience with teaching her how to be involved and active in the race issues of the time. She would march to protest the lynchings still occurring in the south. Height earned a bachelor's degree in education in 1930 and a master's degree in psychology in 1932 from NYU.

Meanwhile, Harlem's Renaissance turned to riots. Height began working as a caseworker at New York City Welfare Department, then began work at the Harlem YWCA. It was there that she met founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Mary McLeod Bethune when she came to visit the facility with U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Height was assigned to escort the women for their Council meeting and became a volunteer for NCNW that night. 

Height gave a speech about "The Bronx Slave Market," in which poor black women, desperate for work and without references, were picked up for a day of labor, for which they were paid next-to-nothing, horribly mistreated, and often sexually assaulted. This speech caught the attention of local publications and within little time, action was taken to improve working conditions.

She became education secretary for the Y, and worked to fully integrate the organization. She did a great deal of traveling, setting up International chapters of the Y. She taught in various locations and was inspired to see countries full of people of color.

Founder of the NCNW, Height's mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune passed away in 1955. Height became the fourth president of the NCNW just as the civil rights movement was really taking shape. Just before the historic March on Washington, Height intervened when many wanted to cut down on Martin Luther King Jr's allotted speech time. Her pleasant demeanor helped to balance out the men's egos to pull everyone together for the cause. Though Height never lost her temper, she was consistently disappointed by fellow activists' unwillingness to let women speak at events.

In her four decades as the NCNW president, Height made an array of achievements, all across the board, including organizing voter registration in the South, setting up rural cooperatives, establishing food programs for underprivileged children and creating scholarship programs for student civil rights workers. Height co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.She counseled world leaders, inspiring them to make valuable changes to discriminating practices. She worked to establish the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. She created the National Black Family Reunion and attended the gathering every year until she passed in 2010.

Among many awards she received in her amazing 98 years, were the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.


"Dorothy Height was strong, brilliant, and she also wore outstanding hats. Her dedication to activism and women's rights is such an incredible inspiration." -Kate Pugsley

The National Council of Negro Women is a non-profit organization with the mission to advance the opportunities and the quality of life for African-American women, their families and communities.

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