Dorothy Irene Height fought for equal rights for both women and African Americans, focusing primarily on improving the circumstances and opportunities for African-American women.
She rose to prominence through leading the National Council of Negro Women and became one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement in the United States.
Height was born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Va. She attended racially integrated schools and showed talent as a singer and orator. She became socially and politically active by participating in anti-lynching campaigns.
Height attempted to enter Barnard College in 1929, but was turned away because the college accepted only two blacks per year.
She ended up attending New York University, where she received a bachelor’s degree in education in 1930 and a master’s degree in psychology in 1932.
Height started working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. After working as a social worker, Height joined the staff of the Harlem YWCA (Young Women Committed to Action) in 1937.
She had a life-changing encounter after meeting educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune and U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the Harlem facility. Height soon volunteered with the NCNW and became close to McLeod.
One of Height’s most influential jobs was working with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, lobbying for civil rights.
Height directed the integration of all of the YWCA centers in 1946.
She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977. In 1957, Height became the president of the National Council of Negro Women.
Through the center and the council, she became a prominent civil right figure. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer on different campaigns and initiatives. She was standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when King made his “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.
In 1971, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm. While she retired from the YWCA in 1977, Height continued to run the NCNW for two more decades and focused on strengthening the African-American family. In 1986, Height organized the first Black Family Reunion, a celebration of traditions and values that are still held annually.
In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. The numerous honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004). She stepped down from the presidency of the NCNW in the late 1990s, but remained the organization’s chair of the board until her death April 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C.