Remembering Dorothy Irene Height

Dorothy Height died this morning at about 3:40 AM. She was a witness to American history from Jim Crow, which prevailed throughout America in the year she was born, 1912, to the presidency of Barack Obama. I had the privilege of knowing her through my mother, Polly Cowan, who worked for Dr. Height for many years, first on a project known as Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIMS), then on the Great Society advocacy program WIMS turned into, Workshops in Mississippi, and finally as an aide to Dr. Height and a National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) ombudsman for the United Nations. Between the years of 1963, when my mother first met Dr. Height, and 1976, when my parents died, Dorothy Height was a constant presence in the lives of all of the Cowan children: Paul, Geoff, Liza, and myself. Liza and I are life members of the National Council of Negro Women. So are my daughters, Rebecca Herz and Polly Shulman. We are white.

Dorothy Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1912, to a middle class African American family. When she was four she moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Pittsburgh. She was a brilliant student and won a scholarship to college. She wanted to go to Barnard in New York City, where a sister of hers was already established, but Barnard said they already had two Negro students in their incoming class, and they could not accept three, so Dr. Height graduated from New York University, and rather than a doctor, she became a social worker. Her concerns were always about how to help the poor, especially the African American poor, and in the 1930s she went to work for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). During the New Deal she became a leader of the National Youth Movement and of the United Christian Youth Movement. It was through the YWCA that in 1937 she met Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and leader of the NCNW. Bethune picked Dr. Height out of the crowd, as if she already had the halo of charisma and brilliance about her, and Dr. Height was soon volunteering for the NCNW. After World War II she became the National President of the historically black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta (1947 to 1956), during which time she eliminated the race barrier to membership (my mother later became an honorary Delta, I believe the first white woman to do so). In 1953 she became the National President of the NCNW. But for most of her career Dr. Height also remained at the YWCA; she had to earn a living; civil rights work was volunteer labor.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s Height was nationally recognized as a champion of interfaith, interracial, and ecumenical movements. In 1963 she became the only woman who was part of the council for United Civil Rights Leadership, and the only member who was not employed by his agency. She remained a volunteer. And the men, while respecting her, made sure that they kept the public eye on themselves, with Dorothy Height only appearing at the very edge of the photo op, consigned to the Siberia of public relations. In the 1960s few men questioned whose leadership was more valuable, a man's or a woman's. In today's language we would call her role "gendered." As Dr. Height herself recognized, the men valued her for her ability to bring them together, to resolve disputes and bridge gaps. They could not understand why she consistently linked civil rights and desegregation with the problems of women and children: with hunger, education, and community. There was a reason that in the fall of 1963 it was a young female SNCC worker named Prathea Hall who contacted Dorothy Height and asked her to come down to Alabama and witness the treatment that young black protestors were receiving in jail. The cells were so overcrowded that the boys and girls could neither sit nor lie down; they were underfed; their food was stretched with sawdust and their coffee mixed with salt; and the Selma police refused to tell their parents where their children had been taken. By 1963 Dr. Height had taken on the task of mitigating violence and protecting young men and women. Women would be both leaders and communicators -- and the shock absorbers of change.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt inspired Dr. Height. Like them, she worked within the world of women volunteers, and she believed that the key to effective women's political participation lay in harnessing the strength not only of African American women across the country, but in cooperating with, and channeling the power of, white women as well, in order to help African Americans - and Americans -- in the struggle for social justice. In her vision and tactics she was deeply rooted in the reform movements of her formative years: the Progressive Era and the New Deal; community empowerment and government action.


My memories of Dr. Height are keen. To begin with, she was not only beautiful and as interested in clothing as my own mother, but she was totally brilliant. Her memory was photographic. Her ability to conceptualize, in the nearly fifty years I knew her, never failed both to amaze and inspire me. She could take a simple thought I offered up, turn it around and around, like a precious diamond, examine its facets, and finally describe its meaning with brilliance. When she asked me in the 1990s to do some research on the incident of the Pearl -- and underground railroad effort that took place in Washington, D.C. -- she was clear in her mind why the past related to the present, why finding out about the actual African Americans who boarded the ship called the Pearl was important, and how these stories could inspire women of color today. Her combination of perfect memory and conceptual genius, combined with an unsurpassed commitment to social justice and an inspiring charisma, is what made her so great -- and why today she is an important icon through which we, as Americans, should examine and remember our past.

A few special and personal moments stand out in my mind. In 1966 I was living in a turn of the last century tenement on the sixth floor of a Greenwich Village walk up. It was a tiny place, originally designed with neither closets nor a bathroom sink (although it did have a bathtub and toilet inside the apartment), and by the time I lived there it was without any interior doors. One evening Dorothy, Polly, and my father, Lou, came to visit me. For the past decade or more Dr. Height has been in a wheel chair, and it still amazes me that the three of them, all in their mid fifties, made it to the top of that building just to visit me, check out where I was living, and give me the pleasure of extending them my hospitality. They sat there talking; three of the most remarkable people in my life, Dr. Height (whom we knew in private as Dorothy) already a beloved member of the Cowan family.

Toward the end of her life, my mother tried to write an autobiography. It was never published, but fragments of her effort remain, tucked away along with the WIMS records at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House Archive. Again and again she wrote about her luck in meeting Dorothy Height. Height could create visions and persuade others of their merits. As my mother said, Dorothy "reminded me of Eleanor Roosevelt who could state the tough issues in a ladylike way. And make you believe them."

One summer while I was still in college I volunteered for the National Council of Negro Women, which in those days meant working for Dr. Height. She taught me so many things, from writing for a newspaper (The Amsterdam News) and selecting issues not ordinarily connected to civil rights such as truth in packaging legislation and opening up a consignment shop, to trying to understand something about the life of African Americans living in New York City. Both of my brothers had gone to Mississippi in 1964, as had my mother, but I had been too frightened. Dorothy took me into under her wing and helped teach me how to think about problems of social justice and community action.

Many years later Dr. Height was trying to find the right publisher for her memoir, Open Wide the Freedom Gates. I feel privileged to say that I helped solve the problem, along with my brother Geoff, whose friend Peter Osnos took it on for PublicAffairs Press. By then I had already begun working as a professional historian to ensure the historic permanence of the story of Wednesdays in Mississippi. Sitting here at my desk at work, less than twenty-four hours after her death, I re-read Dorothy's inscription to me with sorrow and with pride. "With sincere gratitude to Holly for getting me connected for the memoirs and for your great hand in inspiring and directing the WIMS story in the manner of my dear friend Polly -- with profound admiration." With Dr. Height, who retained her perfect memory until the end now gone, I am so very happy that there are two young scholars writing their dissertations on Wednesdays and Workshops in Mississippi.


Dr. Height continued throughout her life to work toward a better America for African Americans and women of color -- and in the end for all of us. She played such a critical role in our nation's struggle for social and racial justice. To the day she died she was dreaming up new solutions to our nation's problems and ideas for how to improve the daily lives of African American women and children. But for her the struggle for black liberation was part of our human liberation, and she envisioned justice for African Americans as part of justice for all people everywhere in the world. It is a message that reverberates on April 20, 2010. It is one we should never forget.