YWCA Remembers Dr. Dorothy Irene Height

21 Apr

From the YWCA USA: YWCA Extols the Life and Legacy of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height – Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and Human Rights Legend

Dr. Dorothy I. Height fought against race and gender prejudice her whole life – starting from the age of 12, when Dorothy demanded to speak to the manager after being denied entrance to a swimming pool because of the color of her skin. Since then, Height went on to participate in virtually all of the major civil rights events from the 1950s through the 1980s, to be a leader within the YWCA and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and to create and run programs that help millions of people around the world.

After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York University, Height immediately started working on civil rights issues, serving as an organizer and eventually Vice President of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America. This work led her to the YWCA, where she spent the next 40 years, working her way up from Assistant Executive Director of the Harlem YWCA to the Executive Director of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington D.C. and finally to the staff of the YWCA National Board where she worked from 1944 to 1977.

Height played a major role in helping shape the YWCA’s focus on racial and social justice issues. During the 1946 YWCA convention, she fought to ensure integration of YWCA facilities nationwide. She became Director of the newly created Center for Racial Justice at the YWCA in 1965, and at the organization’s 1970 convention, worked to establish a core imperative of the YWCA mission – the elimination of racism.

She also worked with Mary McLeod Bethune at the NCNW, fighting for equal employment, pay and education for women. She served as NCNW’s president from 1957 to 1998, helping organize “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” which worked to open communication between women of different races; creating programs to address housing, teen parenting, and hunger issues; and establishing the Black Family Reunion Celebration in 1986. She served as Chair Emeritus of NCNW, going to work every day, until shortly before her 98th birthday.

Height was at the forefront of every major civil rights event of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, including working with Martin Luther King, Jr., to plan the 1963 March on Washington – the only woman to help plan the march. She has been an advisor to administrations from Roosevelt to Obama, and has received 36 honorary degrees from universities and colleges. Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 by President Clinton and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004, the two highest civilian honors.

The highest honor bestowed by the YWCA is named for Dorothy Height and is presented to individuals whose efforts and contributions have been significant in the field of racial justice and have also had a national impact. In 2009, in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of YWCA in the United States, Height was a recipient of the YWCA Fearless Leader Award.

YWCA USA CEO Dr. Lorraine Cole, herself a recipient of a Dr. Dorothy I. Height Spirit Award, said, “Dr. Height’s life’s work personifies the YWCA purpose – a quest for peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. And, I contend that her signature hats were really not hats at all; they were her crowns – and, sometimes her warrior headdresses. Her legacy to the YWCA and the nation will be enduring.”

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