This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Dorothy Height was 8 years old when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, and women received the right to vote. But, even as a child, Height made a mark, and she never stopped advocating for African American women and civil rights.
“I am the product of many whose lives have touched mine, from the famous, distinguished, and powerful to the little known and the poor,” Height once wrote.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912, Height’s family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, when she was still very young. She was awarded a scholarship to New York University for her oratory skills, where she studied and earned her master’s degree.
A social activist, Height began her career working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. Still, at the age of 25, she began her career as a civil rights activist when she joined the National Council of Negro Women, according to The HistoryMakers.
She fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women, and in 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA.
She remained active with the organization until 1977, and while there, she developed leadership training programs and interracial and ecumenical education programs, according to Height’s biography posted on the HistoryMakers website.
In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997.
During the middle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which brought together black and white women from the north and South to create a dialogue of understanding.
During a chance encounter with African American leader Mary McLeod Bethune, Height was inspired to begin working with the National Council of Negro Women, according to the womenshistory.org. Through the NCNW, Height focused on ending the lynching of African Americans and restructuring the criminal justice system.
In 1957, she became the fourth president of the NCNW. Under her leadership, the council supported voter registration in the South, according to womenshistory.org. The NCNW also financially aided several civil rights activists throughout the country.
On Aug. 23, 1963, Height sat on the speaker’s stage at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where she was surrounded by most of the famous civil rights activists.
She wasn’t scheduled to speak, but many saw the moment as a symbolism of Height’s rightful place among other prominent leaders.
Top American officials, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, were known to have taken counsel from Height.
She would eventually encourage President Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African American women to positions in government.
“We cannot afford to be separate. … We have to see that all of us are in the same boat,” Height said at the time.
In addition to her work in the United States, Height traveled extensively. She served as a visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India, and with the Black Women’s Federation of South Africa.
In 1989, she received the Citizens Medal Award from President Ronald Reagan, and in 2004, Height was honored with the Congressional Gold Medal. The same year, Height was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International. She also received an estimated 24 honorary degrees, according to womenshistory.org.
“Even if you are a token, you have an important function to fulfill,” Height once said.
She died on April 20, 2010, at the age of 98.