Biography of Dorothy Height: Civil Rights Leader

Dorothy Height
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Dorothy Height (March 24, 1912–April 20, 2010) was a teacher and social service worker, and the four-decade-long president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She was called the "godmother of the women's movement" for her work for women's rights, and one of few women present on the platform at the 1963 March on Washington.  

Fast Facts: Dorothy Height

  • Known For: Civil rights leader, known as the "godmother" of the women's movement.
  • Born: March 24, 1912, Richmond, Virginia.
  • Parents: James Edward and Fannie Burroughs Height.
  • Died: April 20, 2010, in Washington, DC.
  • Education: New York University, BA Education, 1930; MA Educational Psychology, 1935.
  • Published Works: Open Wide the Freedom Gates, 2003.
  • Spouse(s): None.
  • Children: None. 

Early Life

Dorothy Irene Height was born on March 24, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia, the eldest of two children of James Edward Height, a building contractor and nurse Fannie Burroughs Height. Both her parents had been widowed twice before, and both had children from the earlier marriages who lived with their family Her one full sister was Anthanette Height Aldridge (1916–2011). The family moved to Pennsylvania, where Dorothy attended integrated schools.

In high school, Height became noted for her speaking skills. She won a national oratory competition, winning a college scholarship. She also, while in high school, began participating in anti-lynching activism.

She was at first accepted by Barnard College, then rejected, being told they had filled their quota for black students. She instead attended New York University. Her bachelor's degree in 1930 was in education and her master's in 1932 was in educational psychology.

Beginning a Career

After college, Dorothy Height worked as a teacher in the Brownsville Community Center, Brooklyn, New York. There she was active in the United Christian Youth Movement after its founding in 1935.  

In 1938, Dorothy Height was one of ten young people selected to help Eleanor Roosevelt plan a World Youth Conference. Through Eleanor Roosevelt, she met Mary McLeod Bethune and became involved in the National Council of Negro Women.

Also in 1938, Dorothy Height was hired by the Harlem YWCA. She worked for better working conditions for black domestic workers, leading to her election to YWCA national leadership. In her professional service with the YWCA, she was assistant director of the Emma Ransom House in Harlem, and later executive director of the Phillis Wheatley House in Washington, DC.

Dorothy Height became national president of Delta Sigma Theta in 1947, after serving for three years as vice president.

National Congress of Negro Women

In 1957, Dorothy Height's term as president of Delta Sigma Theta expired, and she was selected as the president of the National Congress of Negro Women, an organization of organizations. Always as a volunteer, she led NCNW through the civil rights years and into self-help assistance programs in the 1970s and 1980s. She built up the organization's credibility and fund-raising capacity such that it was able to attract large grants and therefore undertake major projects. She also helped establish a national headquarters building for NCNW.

She was also able to influence the YWCA to be involved in civil rights beginning in the 1960s and worked within the YWCA to desegregate all levels of the organization.

Height was one of the few women to participate at the highest levels of the civil rights movement, with such others as A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King, jr., and Whitney Young. At the 1963 March on Washington, she was on the platform when Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.


Dorothy Height traveled extensively in her various positions, including to India, where she taught for several months, to Haiti, to England. She served on many commissions and boards connected with women's and civil rights.

"We are not a problem people; we are a people with problems. We have historic strengths; we have survived because of family." - Dorothy Height

In 1986, Dorothy Height became convinced that negative images of black family life was a significant problem, and to address the problem, she founded the annual Black Family Reunion, an annual national festival.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented Height with the Medal of Freedom. When Dorothy Height retired from the presidency of the NCNW, she remained chair and president emerita. She wrote her memoirs, "Open the Freedom Gates," in 2003. Over her lifetime, Height was given many awards, including three dozen honorary doctorates, and a BA from Barnard College in 2004, 75 years after they turned her away.


Dorothy Height died on April 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C. She neither married nor had children. Her papers are archived at Smith College and the Washington, DC, headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women.