Dorothy Irene Height was born on March 24th, 1912 in Richmond, Virginia. She was the daughter of a building contractor and a nurse. When she was five years old, her family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania where she excelled as a student while attending racially integrated schools. In high school, Height showed great talent as an orator. She also became socially and politically active, participating in anti-lynching campaigns. Height's skills as a speaker took her all the way to a national oratory competition. Winning the event, she was awarded a college scholarship. In 1929, she was admitted to Barnard College.
When she arrived on the Barnard campus, admission letter in hand, and she was told by a dean that unfortunately, the college had already reached their quota of “two Negro students per year.” She recalls being crushed. She had just graduated with honors from an integrated high school in Rankin, Pennsylvania. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep for days.” She was determined and she persisted. Upon visiting New York University, carrying her acceptance letter to Barnard, they accepted her on the spot. There she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in educational psychology. She pursued further postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work (the predecessor of the Columbia University School of Social Work).
Height said later in life in an interview that her rejection at Barnard taught her "that there is no advantage in bitterness, that I needed to go into action, which is something I have tried to follow since.” It was this determination that would drive Height through the following decades as she became, as President Barack Obama observed, "the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement -- witnessing every march and milestone along the way.”
In 1933 Height began working as a caseworker with the New York City Welfare Department. She joined the National Council of Negro Women at the age of 25 to become active in civil rights activism, and in 1957, she was named its president — a position she would hold for the next forty years. In that role, she organized "Wednesdays in Mississippi," a group that brought black and white women from the North and South together to create bridges of understanding across regional, racial, and class lines. Height often advised national political leaders on civil rights issues, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson,
In 1963, Height was one of the organizers of the famed March on Washington. She stood close to Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Despite her skills as a speaker and a leader, Height was not invited to talk that day.
Height later wrote that the March on Washington event had been an eye-opening experience for her. Her male counterparts "were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household," she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Height joined in the fight for women's rights. In 1971, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm.
James Farmer, included her in his book, “Big Six” which is a memoir of civil rights leaders. She marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr, and John Lewis but Farmer believed that sexism led to the fact that her contributions have been frequently ignored. He wanted her to be remembered.
In 1990, Height, along with 15 other African Americans, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. Ironically, Height was recognized by Barnard for her achievements as an honorary alumna during the college's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 2004.
The musical stage play If This Hat Could Talk, based on her memoirs Open Wide The Freedom Gates, debuted in 2005. The work showcases her unique perspective on the civil rights movement and details many of the behind-the-scenes figures and mentors who shaped her life, including Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt.
She was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. On February 1, 2017, the United States Postal Service kicked off Black History month with the issuance of the Dorothy Height Forever stamp honoring her civil rights legacy.