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Dorothy Height: A woman who wore many hats

Herman Alexis Height Dorothy 460
Alexis Herman speaks at this month's Dorothy Height stamp unveiling ceremony at Howard University. Photo by Lateef Mangum.

Dorothy Irene Height blended substance with style as she tackled gender and racial issues. You never saw Height without a hat. She had lots of them: Blue hats. Green hats. A high-topped cranberry hat with roses. A white-sequined halo. Fuchsia spirals trimmed in black. Some of her nearly 300 hats are now at the Smithsonian.

Little kids knew Height as the hat lady. Grown folks knew not to let the hats fool them. For under those hats was a woman of intellect with a mind that stayed sharp until the day she died at age 98 in 2010. The world celebrated her life with three days of tribute—a ceremony by Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. at Howard University, where her sorority was founded; a public viewing at the headquarters of her beloved National Council of Negro Women, where she had served as president for four decades; and a funeral at Washington National Cathedral, filled with mourners wearing all sorts of hats in her honor.

The U.S. Postal Service is now celebrating the civil rights leader on a Forever stamp with an acrylic and gouache portrait by Thomas Blackshear II. The stamp is the 40th in the Black Heritage series, and it depicts Height in one of her many hats in purple, her favorite color.

“She was quiet and graceful and always impeccably dressed, most notably for the fabulous hats she wore,” said Peggy Lewis, an executive dean at Trinity Washington University. “She was in many ways an unsung hero, because she never promoted herself but worked tirelessly behind the scenes on behalf of women and people of color.”

Height made the most of her 40-year stint in leadership positions at the Young Women’s Christian Association, which partly overlapped with her time at NCNW. Early in her career, she worked on a “Stop Lynching” campaign; helped people obtain social services after the 1935 Harlem riots; and testified at city council against the “Bronx Slave Market,” where women and girls were picked out for domestic day work—sometimes without being paid.

At the YWCA, she also founded the Center for Racial Justice; started the Women's Center for Education; established the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement to train women for entry-level jobs; and worked on human rights in Haiti, Latin America, India, and Africa.

Through NCNW, she established hunger initiatives, teen parenting programs, and "Wednesdays in Mississippi," an interracial, interfaith group of women who helped out at Freedom Schools and worked on voter registration. Height’s work increasingly gained the attention of powerful people in a cross section of arenas.

Peggy Lewis would often encounter Height at the White House when Lewis worked for President Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, “who was like a daughter to Dr. Height” and now runs the Dorothy I. Height Foundation, which provides scholarships and other educational support for disadvantaged students.

Besides Clinton, Height had the ear of presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. She pushed them on voting rights, health care, better pay, fair housing, criminal justice, and equality in the armed forces. Height was present when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and when George W. Bush reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

John F. Kennedy appointed her to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she met at the YWCA. Ronald Reagan gave her a Citizens Medal in 1989, Clinton honored her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and Bush awarded her a Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

“Dr. Dorothy Height was an amazing woman, and it was always a blessing to be in her presence,” Lewis said. “You felt as if you were entering a moment in history as you listened to her tell stories about what it was like to be a young, smart black woman in Jim Crow America.”

Height grew up outside Pittsburgh in Rankin, Pa. Her parents instilled a sense of activism through her father’s work in politics and at nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church, along with her mother’s involvement in the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

“There, I saw women working, organizing, teaching themselves,” Height wrote in her 2003 memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. “I heard a lot about uplifting the race.”

Height also learned how to carry herself. She grew up in an era when it was de rigueur to wear hats in public. Hats did more than complete an outfit. They signaled presence, dignity, and respect for yourself and others. They were a must at church or any place where you had to get down to business. And throughout her life, Height was all about business.

A high achiever early on, she won a $1,000 scholarship during a national speech competition in high school. After graduation, Height headed to New York to attend Barnard College, but was told she had to wait a year because the annual quota of two black students had already been reached.

She switched to New York University, where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in educational psychology. She later studied social work at Columbia University. A half-century later, in 1980, Barnard awarded Height a Medal of Distinction and made her an honorary alumna.

During her first year at the YWCA, she was in awe from meeting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune, who lured Height into the organization and would later become her mentor.

“Mrs. Bethune and Mrs. Roosevelt made me and countless others want to be like them,” Height said in her book. “They represented a rare breed of true leaders, at once heroic and humble.”

Height became national president of Delta Sigma Theta in 1947 and transitioned into the same role at NCNW in 1957, shortly after Bethune’s death.

A gifted orator, Height spoke extemporaneously on any number of topics, commanding a ballroom, arena, or the National Mall as soon as she took the microphone. At 89, she held women spellbound at a 30th anniversary luncheon for the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association. People stopped what they were doing to hear Height speak well into her 90s during NCNW’s Black Family Reunion Celebrations, a national series of cultural and educational festivals that she started in 1986 to counter reports of “the vanishing black family.”

In all her roles, Height leveraged the power of women for political and social change. “She is an example of fierce determination in how she impacted the lives of black people in so many significant ways,” Lewis said, “from her work integrating the YWCA to leading the National Council of Negro Women to being the only woman to work regularly with the so-called ‘Big Six,’ the men best known as leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Height worked closely with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other members of the Big Six to organize the 1963 March on Washington. She appeared on the stage with them, but as a woman was not allowed to speak.

However, she insisted that King’s time not be cut short, which allowed him to deliver the enduring “I Have a Dream” speech. She also advocated for the inclusion of young speakers like John Lewis, who had been beaten and bloodied as a leader in SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Now a Georgia Congressman, Lewis was a key figure at the unveiling of Height’s stamp.

“The burdens of poverty, of widening gaps between rich and poor, of gangs, of children having children, of unspeakable neglect or abuse within families, of young people crushed in the tangled web of drugs and violence—these problems, alas, are still with us,” Height said.

As she did with other presidents, Height would have challenged Donald Trump’s positions and tried to teach him a thing or two. And as a believer in organizations and coalitions, she would have continued to join forces to address persistent problems in hopes of a brighter future.

“I know from experience,” she said, “that more is accomplished together than one can do alone.”




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