Dorothy Height and the Roots of a Black Intellectual-Activist

Dorothy Height presenting Eleanor Roosevelt the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award, New York, November 12, 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)

Dorothy I. Height was a model Black intellectual-activist. She challenged racism and sexism at an early age, setting the stage for a lifetime of activism. In 1937 she began working at the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) in Harlem, New York, where she worked for over forty years. Working with the YWCA, Height met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune founder of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) on the same day, and both became her mentors. Height served as president of NCNW from 1957 until 1998, at which time she became Chair and President Emerita until her death on April 20, 2010. Height was also National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from 1947 until 1956. She also participated in the Civil Rights Movement and served on the planning committee for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. With a host of accomplishments and accolades to her credit, it is appropriate to review her memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates and explore her childhood for the root of her service to Black people, women, and humanity.

Height was a Black woman whose intelligence and activism improved the quality of life and material conditions of Black people and women, and sought to ensure their humanity and dignity were respected as well. Height was molded into a Black intellectual-activist through her parents, the intellectual preparation and stimulation she received in her youth, and a nurturing community. Born March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, to Fannie Burroughs and James Height, her parents would relocate to Rankin, Pennsylvania, as part of the Great Migration. Her father was a building and painting contractor. Owning his own business and doing quality work made Mr. Height a sought-after contractor. As such, many Black men migrating North were employed by Mr. Height. She remembers being stopped by some desperate jobseekers on the way home from school asking her to put in a good word with her father for employment opportunities. Height recalls, “I knew some of these young men and came to see how precious work is for people.”  Height became increasingly aware of the plight of her community members and observed her father, in a more privileged position, do what he could to assist others. He was also an active Republican, which was still the party of Lincoln. He was also active in their church, Emmanuel Baptist Church as a Deacon, superintendent of the Sunday School, and choirmaster. She described his leadership as very managerial and structured.

Height’s mother had been a nurse in Virginia, but became a domestic worker once they moved to Rankin because the hospitals did not employ Black people. Mrs. Height was also active in the church and the Black Women’s Club Movement. She was part of the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs founded in 1895. Height joined her mother at state and national meetings. There, she observed Black women teaching, working, and organizing together. In this environment, Height was reinforced with a commitment to racial uplift. Here, she found her “place in the sisterhood.

Height’s parents modeled leadership, service, and commitment to advancing the race. She credits her father with her ability to efficiently manage tasks while crediting her mother and the Black Women’s Club Movement for revealing the dual struggle for justice as a Black person and a woman. Both instilled how to be of service to others. As a child rehearsing for an Easter program, Height giggled and laughed at a boy who could not recite his short speech without error. Height recalled her mother talking with her about it, saying that if she knew her speech so well, then her role was to assist others in mastering their speeches, and if that could not be done, then Height should not be in the program. Unable to fathom missing the show, Height redirected her energy to the service others in preparation for the program. She recalls, “My mother helped me understand how not to show off what I knew but how to use it so that others might benefit.” Height credited her mother with constantly modeling and molding a value of service to others. She learned to work in collaboration with others on matters of mutual interest while continuing to push herself to grow and develop individually.

Rankin’s population was largely foreign-born with groups such as Italian, Croatian, German, and some Jewish families. Height valued the diversity of her community and was even escorted to junior prom by a Croatian boy. And yet, economic tensions and hierarchies existed. Height remembered that even though “Negroes from the South were the last in line”—behind the foreign-born whites and the American-born whites—Height recalled that Black students were always at the top of their classes in the integrated schools and they never felt inferior.

Height’s intellectual and academic preparation expanded beyond the classroom. She also involved herself in extracurricular activities such as leadership, basketball, and debate. In eighth grade, while acting as class secretary, Height and the class president wrote to the H.J. Heinz Company of Pittsburg and secured a visit to the Heinz plant and lunch at a downtown hotel. This opportunity resulted in their teachers providing etiquette classes. Height acknowledged that learning how to handle silverware, properly express their thanks, and other decorum, along with her home training, “helped me move comfortably and dine with anyone, anywhere.”

When the Rankin Christian Center was established, the local YWCA organized a Girl Reserves Club of which Height was one of the first to join. Height recalled, “That club made us feel like we were linked with girls from all over the city.” Height would be elected president of the club and was selected to be photographed with two white girls for a Girl Reserves poster for the Pittsburgh YWCA. Elated, Height and some other girls went to the Pittsburg YWCA for swimming lessons only to be told that “Negro” girls could not swim in the pool. At twelve years old, Height asked to see the executive director. Her efforts to address the racial injustice did not result in the desired change, but it settled in her a resolve to struggle for racial justice for decades to come.  In addition, the sting of the McKeesport High School girls’ basketball team refusing to play against Rankin High because there were three “Negroes” on the team stayed with Height throughout her life. Counsel from adults on anti-Black racism did not satisfactorily address the issue for Height. Experiences such as these provided her with leadership experience and further motivation for a life of activism against racism and sexism. She also learned that leadership is not limited to a position one holds but includes the willingness to address issues when they arise whether one holds a formal position or not.

Another notable extra-curricular activity was Height’s involvement in speech contests. At fifteen years old she won the Western Pennsylvania High School Impromptu Speech Contest and had the opportunity to compete in the state finals. On her way to the contest with her Latin teacher and principal, the group stopped at a hotel in Harrisburg, but they were told that since Height was a “Negro” she could not stay at the hotel. With her teacher and principal befuddled and angry, Height remembered the words of her mother as she left home, “Dorothy, just hold yourself together.” Height took control of the situation stating that they should go straight to Carnegie Hall for the contest, find a delicatessen along the way for food and beverage, and that she would change into her dress in the lady’s room upon arrival at the venue. Ultimately, Height unanimously won first place from the panel of all white judges and became the 1928 Pennsylvania State Champion in Impromptu Speech. This experience taught Height the importance of research, preparation, organization, and staying calm under pressure.

Height received guidance and affirmation from parents, teachers, and other supportive community members. These experiences are one of many that shaped Dorothy I. Height into a model Black intellectual-activist and a leader among leaders. She possessed values, skills, and knowledge that she employed in the service of others. In her twilight years, Height published Living with Purpose, imparting practical wisdom to a new generation of activists in the continued struggle for racial and social justice.

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M. Keith Claybrook, Jr.

M. Keith Claybrook, Jr., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Africana Studies at CSU, Long Beach where he teaches classes on history and the social sciences. Claybrook serves on CSU, Long Beach’s Presidents Commission on Equity and Change Commission, and served two terms as VP of the Black Faculty and Staff Association and. He regularly attends conferences such as the National Conference of Black Studies National conference, the African Heritage Studies Association, Sixth Region Diaspora Caucus conference, and other conferences where he has presented on a diversity of topics including Black student activism, the Black Students Movement, Black Los Angeles, educational history, African Deep Thought and critical thinking, identity and consciousness, reparations, Hip Hop, and pedagogy. He has also published book reviews, journal articles, encyclopedia entries, and book chapters. His publications include, Building the Basics: A Handbook for Pursuing Academic Excellence in Africana Studies, “Putting Some Soul into Critical Thinking: Toward an African Centered Approach to Critical Thinking,” “Africana Studies, 21st Century Black Student Activism, and High Impact Educational Practices: A Biographical Sketch of David C. Turner, III,” “David L. Horne: A Living Example of a Pan African Leader Scholar- Activist,” and “Black Power, and Black Students, and the Institutionalizing of Change: Loyola Marymount University, 1968- 1978.” Claybrook has lent his expertise on “Today in L.A.” on NBC4, KJLH’s “Front Page with Dominque DePrima,” KPCC- NPR on “AirTalk with Larry Mantle,” and several other television, print, and internet media outlets.

Comments on “Dorothy Height and the Roots of a Black Intellectual-Activist

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    Dr. Claybrook
    I will forward this highly informative article to my sister Deborah C. Johnson, whose participation in Dr. Height’s circle has been noteworthy, and includes her 2-term presidency [ending this month] of Philadelphia’s NCNW. Thank you
    for keeping her memory alive.
    I am personally interested in several of your research areas, especially Black Los Angeles where I lived for several years before returning to Brooklyn. If and when time permits, I’d like to be in touch!

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      Greetings Tamara, thank you for your message and kind words. I look forward to touching base with you.

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    Wonderful, inspiring and insightful article. Thank you so much, Dr. Claybrook!
    I got goosebumps reading about young Dorothy Height facing racism and transcending it with strength, intelligence, grace and dignity.

    This article is a Godsend. I have been researching the Harlem YMCA, but have not had much luck in getting primary resources. My mother lived there in 1947, when she was a student at Julliard Conservatory of Music, and she was a life member of NCNW. I had no idea that Dorothy Height worked there. I would like to imagine that their paths crossed. My mother’s name was Dorothy, too.

    I would appreciate any assistance you could offer regarding the history of the Harlem YMCA.

    Again, thank you for your excellent article and lifelong scholarship. I look forward to delving further into your writing listed in your biography.

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      Thank you Sherrie for your kind words.

      Regarding your research into the Harlem YWCA Dorothy Height’s book “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” is full of key names and events that may be helpful. Also, Judith Weisenfeld wrote a book entitled “African American women and Christian activism: New York’s Black YWCA, 1905-1945.” This may provide valuable insight as well. Lastly, Weisenfeld also wrote an article entitle “The Harlem YWCA and the Secular City, 1904-1945.” It came out in the Journal of Women’s History in 1994, vol. 6 issue 3. I hope this helps.

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        Thank you so much! I contacted the Schomburg, and they were kind enough to send me a photograph. The Weisenfeld book is marvelous. Also found articles and photos through my
        And the most amazing thing I found is this archival footage from the 1940s.

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    The is article was both fascinating and informative. Dr. Claybrook was able to provide insight into the establishment and the foundation of a most prolific figure, that was Dr. Dorthy Height. By uncovering the roots of her achievements, we can connect to her legacy in a way that can inspire our communal growth and development.

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