Black History Month: Dorothy Height

Intersectional champion for civil rights

Annalisse Galaviz


Dorothy Height lived long enough to aid those suffering during the Great Depression. She became a founding member of a civil rights council in the ‘60s, encouraged political figures, including former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Lyndon B. Johnson, to sponsor African-American representation; won over 16 awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; and received honor on stage during the inauguration of former President Barack Obama in 2009, yet you’ve likely never heard of her.

As an African-American woman whose work was mainly performed during a time of mass segregation, Height’s role in the Civil Rights Movement was “frequently ignored by the press due to sexism,” as acknowledged by civil rights leader James Farmer, who described Height as one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement. Still, her legacy will not be forgotten, even over a century since her birth. She was a civil rights and women’s rights activist who positively affected employment, literacy, and voter awareness among African Americans

Height began her civil rights work supporting anti-lynching campaigns as a high schooler at an integrated school in Rankin, Pennsylvania, where she grew up. Dedicated to both leadership roles in civil rights events and her education, Height used her skills as a speaker to win college scholarships, surpassing the standards for many white men at the time.

Height was accepted into Barnard College in 1929, only to be rejected upon arrival due to their policy of only accepting two black students yearly. Instead of being disheartened, Height channeled her disapproval for legal segregation into her studies and activism, as she attended New York University, earning an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in Educational Psychology, and the Columbia University, in collaboration with the New York School of Social Work, to study Social Work.

After Height completed her education, she worked as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department, serving underprivileged cities in New York during the Great Depression. From there, she continued to serve others on a larger scale by joining the National Council of Negro Women at age 25 and the national staff of the World Young Women’s Christian Association in 1944, which both empowered women and advocated for civil rights. Furthermore, she encouraged the education of racial and gender minorities by developing leadership training programs and ecumenical education programs for the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Columbia University, serving as their national president from 1947 to 1956.

Height served as president of the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997 and furthered the ‘60s Civil Rights Movement by developing “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” a forum which promoted positive race relations for Northern and Southern black and white women. She also became a founding member of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. 

Although she was an active leader for civil rights in the Black community, her activism transcended traditional racial divides, as she actively attempted to establish relationships with influential leaders in the white community.

Height discussed female, minority, and educational representation with Eleanor Roosevelt, encouraged President Dwight D. Eisenhower to desegregate schools, and asked President Lyndon B. Johnson to appoint African-American women to government positions. Increasing her political influence, Height became a consultant on African-American affairs to the Secretary of State, the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped, and the President’s Committee on the Status of Women during the ‘60s. 

In the ‘70s, she was elected to the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, where she helped develop ethical standards for research in response to the “Tuskegee Syphilis Study.” As the result of her work, the Belmont Report was published, and is still used by researchers to this day.

Following her ethical work in psychology, she formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom in 1990 to support women’s reproductive rights, including legal abortion. As a chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights — the largest civil rights movements for women’s rights organization in the U.S. — and many more influential organizations, Height inspired an influx in African-American education, humane treatment, and political representation, as is represented by her three books on activism, her 16 formally recognized awards, and her memorial building in Washington D.C., where the National Council of Negro Women’s headquarters are now located. 

This February, recognized as Black History Month, we must not forget the work of Dorothy Height the same way she was forgotten from history during her peak activism. Let her legacy remind us to live with purpose by listening, learning, and leading.