Dorothy Height: Auntie To The World
Written By Savvy Auntie Staff Writers
By Melanie Linn Gutowski
Though her name was not known to the majority of Americans, Dr. Dorothy Height's lifelong work impacted many of them.
Called "the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement" by President Obama, Height died April 20, 2010 at age 98. Her life had been spent working tirelessly to further the causes of civil rights for both African Americans and women.
Her own experiences with prejudice seemed to drive her life's work.
Born in 1912 in Richmond, Va., Height's family moved to Rankin, Pa., a steel town outside of Pittsburgh, where she attended integrated schools. She took up civil rights work as a teenager, volunteering on anti-lynching and voting rights campaigns.
Height was a gifted speaker and won a college scholarship in a U.S. Constitution oratory competition. She applied to Barnard College and was accepted, though later was told she could not be admitted because the college had already reached its quota of two black students that year. In a test of her own resolve, she took the letter to New York University, where she was immediately accepted and earned degrees in education and psychology.
Following her education, Height worked as a social worker and was later assistant executive director of the Harlem Y.W.C.A. Her work there included supervision of the desegregation of the organization's facilities nationwide.
She later served on the National Council of Negro Women, eventually becoming its president. She also helped found the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971 with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and others.
Because of her work in these groups, The New York Times credited her as "the first person in the modern civil rights era to treat the problems of equality for women and equality for African-Americans as a seamless whole, merging concerns that had been largely historically separate."
Height, who never married, chose to focus on her various causes, rather than on fighting for the limelight with male civil rights leaders. Her belief was in collective struggle rather than personal recognition.
Height's humility did not preclude her from being recognized; she held three dozen honorary doctorates from various institutions and finally was awarded the degree she had been denied by Barnard College in 2004. She was also the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom among many other honors.
Height was a valued adviser to President Obama, meeting with him at the White House 21 times since the start of his presidency. She also was given a seat of honor on the dais during his inauguration.
While Height was truly an auntie to the world, she was also an auntie in real life, a fact that President Obama honored in his eulogy on April 29, 2010, at the National Cathedral in Washington.
"When you have a nephew who's 88, you've lived a full life."
Melanie Linn Gutowski is a freelance writer and a proud Godmother.