Dorothy Irene Height (March 24, 1912 – April 20, 2010) an American administrator and educator, was a civil rights and women’s rights activist specifically focused on the issues of African-American women, including unemployment, illiteracy, and voter awareness. She was the president of the National Councilof Negro Women for forty years and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Virginia. During childhood, she moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, a steel town in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where she graduated from Rankin High School in 1929. Height received a scholarship from the Elks, which helped her to attend college. She was admitted to Barnard College in 1929, but upon arrival was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two black students per year. She enrolled instead at New York University, earning an undergraduate degree in 1932 and a master’s degree in educational psychology the following year. She pursued further postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work (the predecessor of the Columbia University School of Social Work).
At the age of 25, she began a career as a civil rights activist, joining the National Council of Negro Women. She fought for equal rights for both African Americans and women. In 1944 she joined the national staff of the YWCA. She was also an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority throughout her life, developing leadership training programs and ecumenical education programs. She served as national president of the sorority from 1946 to 1957.In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women, a position she held until 1997. During the height 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. Height was also a founding member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. In his autobiography, civil rights leader James Farmer described Height as one of the “Big Six” of the civil rights movement, but noted that her role was frequently ignored by the press due to sexism.
In 1990, Height, along with 15 other African Americans, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. Height was recognized by Barnard for her achievements as an honorary alumna during the college’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2004. On March 25, 2010, Height was admitted to Howard University Hospital in Washington D.C. for unspecified reasons. She died three weeks later, on April 20, 2010, at the age of 98. Her funeral service at the Washington National Cathedral on April 29, 2010 was attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, as well as many other dignitaries and notable people. She was later interred at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Colmar Manor, Maryland.