Remembering Dr. Dorothy Height

The Akan of West Africa have a proverb that beautifully illustrates the importance of remembering the legendary Dr. Dorothy Height: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates to “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” Yet, what if you never knew enough to go back in the first place?

As inspiring as Black History Month can be, it is absurd to think that a history as complex and convoluted as that of black people could possibly be relegated to a matter of 28 (or 29) days. In that short amount of time, many a pioneer is overlooked or covered in such a shallow, archaic manner that what was initially intended as celebration and retrospection ultimately becomes inadequate cliché. As a result, the redundant portrayals of these individual’s portrayal’s and their roles in Black History make it understandably difficult for the younger generations to identify with their predecessors.

Well, to all of the young people out there reading this–have you ever  been prematurely judged because of your race? How about your gender? Imagine getting accepted into your dream college, only to be turned away due to an unspoken quota of only two students of your racial background. Now, picture a world with no female DJs, no congresswomen, and no BLACK GIRLS ROCK. As absurd as this imaginary world may seem to you, this was the reality for a young Dr. Dorothy Height, who had been turned away from Barnard College in 1929.

The discrimination that Dr. Height faced from the college would ultimately propel her towards a career in education and social activism. Upon receiving her bachelors (1932) and masters degree (1933) from NYU, Dr. Height set out to ensure that regardless of race, gender, or class, no other person would have to endure the same injustice that she had. Dr. Height would go on to becoming “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” as President Obama has recently declared. In true BLACK GIRLS ROCK! fashion, Dr. Height stood her own as the sole female member of the Big Seven, an activist group that included Martin Luther King Jr., A Phillip Randolph, Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins. Gender inequality also played a large role in Dr. Height’s activism. At the age of 25, she joined the National Council of Negro Women, an unprecedented organization of which Dr. Height would ultimately become president from 1957 until 1997. For all of the sorors out there, Dr. Dorothy Height was a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta and contributed greatly to the sorority’s legacy by creating leadership training programs and educational services to the community.

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Height coordinated a great deal of workshops and activist groups, including “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a  regular meet-up of black and white women from the North and the South, and pig banks, an organization that helped poor rural families raise livestock. American leaders such as President Eisenhower, President Lyndon B. Johnson, President Clinton, and the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would repeatedly come to Dr. Height for counseling on national matters. Height’s seven decades of fighting for equality and human rights received the highest national honors in 1994 and 2004, when she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, respectively.Of course, the fact that Dr. Dorothy Height worked towards all of her accomplishments in fabulous signature hats, gloves, and pearls makes her all the more fierce in our eyes.
I want to be remembered as someone who used herself and anything she could touch to work for justice and freedom…. I want to be remembered as one who tried. -Dr. Dorothy Height [1]

Last Tuesday, Dr. Dorothy Height passed away at 98 in Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C. The outstanding legacy that she leaves behind should not become another ancient relic, only to be recovered and dusted off every February. No, just as Dr. Height relentlessly struggled for seemingly unattainable rights, people everywhere, particularly black women, ought to follow Dr. Heights lead and begin taking the initiative. Granted, the social and political climate in the US may not seem as dire as during the 60s and 70s, and so making a difference may seem all the more daunting and impossible, given that there is no current movement similar in influence and strength Civil Rights Movement. The key to remaining hopeful lies in baby steps. Why not try the following:

  • Creating and following a book club focused on Africana scholars
  • Volunteering for the social non-profit of your choice
  • Setting up literacy classes with your friends
  • Beginning a Big Brother/Big Sister program at your school
  • Throwing monthly dinners to honor and remember those who fought and died for our rights

As long as you do not forget to look back and learn, you will be able to face the future as fearlessly as Dr. Dorothy Height.

How do you feel about the passing of Dr. Dorothy Height? How has she inspired you to make a difference?

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3 Responses to Remembering Dr. Dorothy Height

  1. Mwita says:

    I never heard of her until today. Thanks for the knowledge!
    It seems to me that young black girls out there should be exposed to more people like her to serve as role models for what can be achieved even through the hardest of circumstances.

    Keep up the good work!!

  2. Pieore says:

    I just found your site today and I am so thankful. I thoroughly enjoyed your article on Dr. Height. I did not have any knowledge of her until after her death. I was saddened by her death, but even more saddened by the fact that I have not taken an active role in learning about my own people. Keep spreading the word and opening eyes.

  3. When Dr. Height had the guts to call out Tupac on his gansta lyricism (God bless the dead in him and her) I knew she had courage. Because at that time it seemed like no one would step up to the plate to call out the misogyny in hip hop music…

    Ms. Height was one of the first…and wasn’t scared.

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