Dorothy was a tireless worker for the civil rights of African-Americans and women. She was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, the Medal of Freedom, and the Presidential Citizens Medal, among others. Dorothy was born in Richmond, Virginia to James and Fannie Height. James was a building contractor. When she was five years old, her family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. She was able to attend racially integrated schools, where she excelled, especially in public speaking. While still a teenager, she volunteered in organizations and demonstrations supporting voting rights for blacks and women. She even participated, at some risk, in demonstrations against the lynching of African-Americans that took place during the 1930s. She entered a public speaking contest, sponsored by the Elks. Her topic was the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments of the US Constitution, which rescinded slavery, made it possible for African Americans to enter into contracts, made them citizens of the United States, and gave black men the vote. She won first prize, which was a four year fully paid scholarship to Barnard College – however, she was told that the college had “already reached its quota of black students” for that year, and was refused admission. As she said in 2008, As Ms. Height told The Detroit Free Press in 2008, “I’m still working today to make the promise of the 14th Amendment of equal justice under law a reality.” – New York Times. The college had an unwritten policy of admitting two token African American students each year. But that didn’t stop Dorothy… she hopped on the subway, holding her acceptance letter from Barnhard, and went across town to New York University. She was admitted the same day, and graduated in 1932, earning a master’s in educational psychology the following year. Dorothy accepted a job as a caseworker for New York City, working in the poorest neighborhoods in the midst of the Great Depression. She joined the National Council for Negro Women and continued her passion for civil rights, eventually becoming president of the organization. She spoke widely to anyone who would listen about the need for racial and gender equality. She gained the ear of Eleanor Roosevelt, which began decades of a role as an advisor to presidents on civil rights. She pushed Eisenhower to desegregate schools, and Johnson to place black women in government positions of influence and authority. Dorothy met and befriended Mary MacLeod Bethune (see the previous post on her), and together they promoted the YWCA and worked against the exploitation of black women as day laborers. During the 1960s, Dorothy organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi”, to promote racial harmony and understanding, bringing together black and white women in dialog about the issues of the day, and the issues all women face. Dorothy was on the platform with Dr. Martin Luther King when he gave his “I have a dream” speech in Washington D. C.Humble to the last, Dorothy said “the task at hand was far less about personal limelight than it was about collective struggle. I was there, and I felt at home in the group,” she told The Sacramento Bee in 2003 “But I didn’t feel I should elbow myself to the front when the press focused on the male leaders.” – New York TimesOf her many honors, Dorothy felt the best about one in particular. In 2004, Barnard University, where she had been turned away, awarded her an honorary degree. She never married, and died in Washington, D.C. Then President Barak Obama ordered flags flown at half mast at her death, as he called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”
Did you know… Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010)?
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