Dorothy Height, a legend in civil rights leadership, died of natural causes this morning at Howard University Hospital, a spokesperson for the hospital confirmed. She was 98 years old.
“I am deeply saddened by the passing today of my dear friend and mentor,” former U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman said in a statement. “She was a dynamic woman with a resilient spirit, who was a role model for women and men of all faiths, races and perspectives. For her, it wasn’t about the many years of her life, but what she did with them.”
Widely revered as the godmother of the civil rights movement, Height led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and stood alongside leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and A. Philip Randolph during some of the most pivotal moments of civil rights history. Her years of service stretched back to 1930s, when she first worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
President Barack Obama called Height a hero Tuesday.
“Ever since she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African-American women, Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality,” the president said.
Born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia to a building contractor and a nurse but raised in Rankin, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, since the age of four, Dorothy Irene Height leadership abilities were evident at a young age. An outstanding and racially conscientious high school student, Height, who was educated in integrated public school, won a national oratorical contest sponsored by the Elks with a speech about slavery amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
With her scholarship prize of $1000, enough to fund college, Height headed to New York City to enroll in Barnard College. When the dean informed her that the two slots for “Negro” women were already filled and she would have to wait a year, Height went to New York University and gained admission even though she had never applied, earning her B.A. and M.A. in four years.
Volunteerism was always at the center of Height’s life and guided her career choices early on. Her first salaried job at the Brownsville Community Center in Brooklyn, which served an area plagued by high unemployment and delinquency rates, resulted from volunteer work she did as field study for her M.A. in Educational Psychology. Her volunteer work with the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities attracted attention from the New York Welfare Association, which offered her a job as an investigator with the Home Relief Bureau during the New Deal era when this country’s concept of welfare was still in its infancy.
Joining the United Christian Youth Movement of North America in 1933 expanded Height’s concept of service beyond local causes with individuals she could touch and feel to include larger issues — like desegregating the armed forces, preventing lynching, reforming the criminal justice system and making public accommodations available to all. As vice president of the organization, in 1937, Height traveled to Oxford, England — the first of the many international trips she’d take in her lifetime.
Her official selection to address the Harlem Riot of 1935 made Height’s leadership skills increasingly hard to ignore. While serving as the Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA, Height escorted Eleanor Roosevelt into a meeting for the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), piquing the interest of legendary civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.
That day, November 7, 1937, forever changed Height’s life. Bethune took Height under her wings. If that weren’t enough, work on the World Youth Conference held at Vassar in 1938 brought Height closer to Roosevelt. Both Bethune and Roosevelt served as invaluable sources of inspiration and mentors to the young Height.
WATCH A 2004 INTERVIEW WITH DOROTHY HEIGHT
Volunteering with the NCNW and working for the YWCA, Height continued to blossom. In 1944, she joined the National Board of the YWCA of the USA, serving in various leadership capacities until 1977, even establishing the YWCA’s Center for Racial Justice in 1965. From 1947 to 1956, Height served as the National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (DST). One of seven Greek letter organization founders of the American Council on Human Rights (ACHR) in 1948, DST also established its first foreign chapter in Haiti in 1950, opened its national headquarters in Washington DC in 1954 and funded a maternity ward in Nairobi, Kenya in 1955 under Height’s leadership. In 1957, Height officially followed in Bethune’s footsteps, becoming the NCNW’s fourth national president, a position she held until 1998 when she became Chair and President Emerita.
No bystander in the civil rights movement, Height stood toe to toe with male leaders that included Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Whitney H. Young and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she met when he was a 15-year-old student at Morehouse. She worked with them to ensure that black women’s needs were addressed. Height helped organize women of different races and faith for “Wednesdays in Mississippi” to assist freedom schools and voter registration drives but also broadened that agenda to include affordable housing.
Under her leadership, the NCNW also embraced the global struggle of women, holding its own conference during the International Women’s Year Conference of the United Nations in Mexico City in 1975. The Bethune Council House, a national historic site that contains the National Archives for Black Women’s History, is among the NCNW’s most enduring legacies. Another is the annual Black Family Reunion, established in 1986 to emphasize the bonds and collective strength that historically sustained African-Americans.
Never one to downplay her femininity, Height was known for her stylish hats. So much so that the 2005 musical stageplay, based on her 2003 memoir Open Wide The Freedom Gates about her remarkable civil rights career and her life-changing interactions with Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, was named If This Hat Could Talk. Tremendously influential, Height spoke directly with President Eisenhower during the school desegregation battles in the 1950s. Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Malcolm X are just a few of the many other great historical and cultural figures with whom Height had personal interaction.
Her many honors include the Congressional Gold Medal, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the Citizen’s Medal and induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. Spelman College, Bennett College, Howard University, Princeton University and her alma mater New York University are among the nearly 40 institutions that awarded her honorary doctorates.
Taking Mary McLeod Bethune’s words that “The freedom gates are half ajar, we must pry them fully open” completely to heart, Height, who never married, dedicated every moment of her being to creating the best world possible for all. “I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom,” she told People in 1998.