Papers of Dorothy I. Height, 1933-2012
Awards, organizational records, biographical essays, correspondence, photographs, and memorabilia of human rights activist Dorothy I. Height.
Language of Materials
Materials in English.
Access. The collection is open for research, with the exception of #47FB.1, which is fragile and is closed until digitized. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Dorothy I. Height is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.
Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.
Extent28.77 linear feet ((45 file boxes, 4 folio boxes, 2 folio+ boxes, 2 oversize boxes) plus 1 card file box, 3 supersize boxes, 1 roll box, 8 folio folders, 7 folio+ folders, 1 oversize folder, 24 photograph folders, 4 folio photograph folders, 2 folio+ photograph folders, 6 audiotapes, 1 DVD)
The papers of Dorothy I. Height, which range in date from 1933 through 2012, mainly document the professional activities of Dorothy Irene Height during her tenure as President of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) (1957-2010). Research values include insight into the collaborative nature, strategies, and goals of women-led organizations, the role of women in the civil rights movement, and the organization's global impact on women and their families. The bulk of the papers, which include administrative records, professional correspondence, memoranda, convention programs, and fundraising activities, provide a substantive overview of the organization's history and evolving organizational structure. Also included are grants and field reports that document NCNW's international work; organizational publications; and published writings by Height. Some publications were transferred to Schlesinger Library's Published Materials Department; consult the library's catalog for holdings. Other professional activities include participation on various advisory boards and committees that advocated for women, provided educational opportunities, and pursued a civil rights agenda. There are also scattered papers related to her career at the YWCA (1937-1977), as well as her voluntary work and presidency of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (1946-1956). The are some personal papers in the collection, including awards, honorary degrees, and tributes; biographical essays and resumes; interview transcripts, and a scrapbook. Personal letters from family, friends, and colleagues were received in envelopes. Although subject content was noted on some folders, most of the papers arrived without an existing order and gaps were noted in all series. Oversized materials, which include honorary degrees, full page clippings, a music score, and posters have been filed within the series they describe. Some papers were previously stored in binders and disassembled prior to accessioning. Binders disassembled by the archivist are noted in the folder title. The archivist created folder titles, consolidated papers to avoid duplication, sorted and interfiled all loose material, and created the arrangement for all series.
Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, 1933-2010, undated (#1.1-6.4, 47FB.1, FD.1-FD.4, F+D.1-F+D.3), includes awards, honorary degrees, and tributes representing Height's commitment to advance the lives of women and their families, her contributions to the civil rights movement, and her efforts to expand the field of social work through global networking. For related memorabilia see Series VI. Biographical essays and interview transcripts provide insights into Height's personal outlook, including challenges and accomplishments. Additional information concerning Height's personal life can be found in Series II. Publications. This series also includes a monthly minder calendar and desk diary, which was used as a calendar, and details her interactions with individuals and organizations. Most of the personal letters and greeting cards in this series are from friends and colleagues that include rank and file members of the NCNW, affiliate organizations, celebrities, congressional representatives. and government officials in the United States and abroad. Some letters include artwork, clippings, invitations, and event flyers. There are also named correspondence folders for two of Height's closest friends, Robert Hall, who served as a consultant for the NCNW's cooperative pig bank in Mississippi and Yvonne Ray, a former NCNW member. These folders also include correspondence and other papers. Memorials and obituaries include tributes, eulogies and remarks offered by Height for friends, former NCNW members, and colleagues in the civil rights movement, including Polly Cowan, Fannie Lou Hamer, A. Philip Randolph, and others. Subject matter of special interest includes Height's genealogical report describing her lineage from the Temne people of Sierra Leone, and a scrapbook she compiled during her recovery from a 1941 car accident containing letters, get well cards, and photographs from many notable friends and colleagues. Folder titles were created by the archivist. Folders are arranged alphabetically, and chronologically thereunder.
Series II, NATIONAL COUNCIL OF NEGRO WOMEN, 1935-2012 (#6.5-41.11, FD.5-FD.8, F+D.4-F+D.6, OD.1), contains a wide range of administrative records, including articles of incorporation, by-laws, and amendments; minutes of the board and executive committee; operational plans; policies and procedures; and organizational handbooks. Early progress reports shed light on the leadership of Height and her predecessor Vivian B. Mason, including the launch of the Citizenship-Education Project in collaboration with the Urban League; a study of African Americans in the United States Navy; international relations; and the NCNW's work with the United Nations. Subject matter of special interest include commemorative events for Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, considered Height's life long friends and mentors. These folders contain speeches, artwork, print material, and other forms of tribute. This series also includes NCNW conventions, consisting of brochures, memoranda, programs, workbooks, and related material. Correspondence in this series documents Height's interaction with affiliate member organizations, corporate sponsors, government officials that includes former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Regan, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Bill Clinton, and congressional representatives Eleanor Norton Holmes, Edward M. Kennedy, and Patrick Leahy. A 1965 letter from a White House assistant mentions the inclusion of a signing pen used by former president Lyndon B. Johnson for the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 (S.1564), however, the pen was not found. There is also a named correspondence file for Betty Kleckly Stradford, the NCNW's historian and photographer. Additional correspondence and memoranda, are scattered throughout the collection, filed with the activities they describe. Congressional transcripts highlight Height's organized support of legislative bills that were pertinent to the African American community. Congressional support for the NCNW's to preserve the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House and to erect a commemorative statue of Bethune in Lincoln Park are also included. Several fundraising campaigns, supported by NCNW members, corporate sponsors, and the general public include The Brown Box Tradition and Mrs. Bethune's Tea Cakes.
Grants and the way in which they were administered, were instrumental in the development and expansion of the NCNW's domestic and international programs and projects. These records include applications and proposals; budgets, correspondence, reports, and related materials. In some instances, grant funded programs and projects generated further government studies, legislative reforms, and more equitable policies for women. Examples include the Women and Housing Program funded by the United States Department of Housing, the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement in New York City, and the National Eldercare Institute. Grant funded projects organized in response to the civil rights movement, included Wednesdays in Mississippi (later Workshops in Mississippi), the Pig Bank, a cooperative farm project in Lowndes County, Mississippi, Turnkey III Home Ownership, which provided housing opportunities to low income families in Sunflower and Bolivar Counties in Mississippi and Macon County, Alabama, Okolona College, formerly a normal and industrial school in Okolona Mississippi, which was repurposed for use by unwed mothers. These projects brought Height into contact with many activists in the north and south, including Fannie Lou Hamer, a grassroots civil rights organizer and member of the Mississippi Freedom Party. Following Hamer's death in 1977, the NCNW established the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center in Ruleville, Mississippi, to honor her work and provide continuing support for young working mothers. Grants also laid the foundation for NCNW's international programs. Following Height's participation in the International Women's Year Conference of the United Nations in Mexico City, she received a grant from the United States Agency for International Development, which enabled her to lecture at the National Convention of Black Women's Federation of South Africa. Over the years this working relationship eventually led the formation of the International Division of NCNW, which implemented many of the same self-help models successfully used in Mississippi to create food production and management projects in Botswana, Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Mauritania, Mozambique, Kenya, and Eritrea. Height also developed the Twinning Program, initially implemented in Senegal and Togo, to promote communications between African and African American organizations through professional, educational and cultural exchanges. Several summaries of programs and projects are also included.
Published material include organizational handbooks, travel guidelines; pamphlets related to the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House and the Bethune Museum and Archives; Sisters Magazineand newsletters; and two highly popular cookbooks, a collaborative project that focused on African American foodways and family traditions: The Black Family Reunion Cookbook and the The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook. Also included are Height's published writings consisting of articles and essays; draft manuscripts, correspondence, and contracts pertaining to her memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gate; and her leadership guide Living with Purpose: An Activist's Guide to Listening, Learning and Leading. Additional writings by Height are included in Series III. Speeches in this series underscore Height's advocacy for women's rights, her commitment to the civil rights movement, the value of self-help programs and tributes to NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune. Several reference files, most likely used for speeches, are also included. Oversized items in this series include sheet music for the Song of the National Council of Negro Women; a publication related to the NCNW annual debutante ball, which Height co-chaired; full page clippings describing NCNW's history, accomplishments, and activities; and posters related to fundraising. Folder titles were created by the archivist. Folders are arranged alphabetically and chronologically thereunder.
Series III, OTHER PROFESSIONAL WORK, 1939-2009, undated (#41.12-45.15, F+D.7), includes papers related to Height's collaborative work with numerous advisory boards and committees focused on achieving equitable opportunities for women, internationalism, voter participation, civil rights and related social and political issues. Included are papers related to the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, organized by the United States Department of Defense, the Committee of Correspondence, which established overseas networks with various women's groups; the A. Philip Randolph Institute, and Women in Community Service. The years Height spent working, for Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and her continued affiliation, are documented by awards, honors and tributes; clippings; correspondence; material related to regional and national conventions; social events and programs. There are some scattered papers related to Heights early career at the YWCA, including annual reports; awards, honors, and tributes; clippings; correspondence; speeches; and organizational history. Subject matter of special interest include Height's employment forms from 1937; a one page flyer advertising "The Follies of 39," held at the Emma Ransom House in Harlem with Height listed as resident director; and Step by Step with Interracial Groups, written by Height while serving as Interracial Education Secretary at YWCA headquarters in New York (ca.1944-1945). Additional items related to her work at the YWCA and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority are included in Series IV. Photographs, Series V. Audiovisual, and Series VI. Memorabilia. Folder titles were created by the archivist. Folders are arranged alphabetically and chronologically thereunder.
Series IV, PHOTOGRAPHS, ca.1936-2009, undated (#PD.1-PD.30) includes formal and informal photographs of Height alone, receiving awards, and at various speaking engagements and commemorative events. Group photographs include early NCNW conferences, Height posing with social work trainees at YWCA classes, and with members of Volunteers Unlimited. Several photographs highlight the NCNW's internationalism during the 1970s, including Height posing with African women who participated in the NCNW Twinning Program, standing with Patricia Nixon at an African delegation's visit to the White House; and seated with women's organizations in Nigeria. Height is also included in photographs of induction ceremonies and other events held by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Of special interest is an autographed photograph album of Height leading an educational tour in the Republic of China (1984-1985). There is related memorabilia from the tour in Series VI. Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be digitized and available online. Folder titles were created by the archivist. Folders are arranged chronologically.
Series V, AUDIOVISUAL, 1985-2009, undated (T-571.1-T-571.6, DVD-153.1) includes audiotapes, video cassettes, and DVDs related to various NCNW activities. The audiotapes feature plenary sessions from NCNW conventions with Height introduces guest speaker. Also included is a reel-to-reel tape of the YWCA's youth conference on civil rights. "Uncommon Height," an annual celebration of achievement held for various recipients is included on DVD-153.1. Items are arranged by format and chronologically thereunder.
Series VI, MEMORABILIA, 1955-2009, undated (#46RBm.1, 48SBm.1-58F+Bm.4) includes several medallions and plaques presented to Height in recognition of her work. Included is the Congressional Medal of Honor (2004) presented to Height by former president George Bush, medallions from the NAACP, New York University, and the American Culinary Federation, the latter most likely related to the NCNW's highly popular cookbooks. See Series II. Publications. Objects of special interest include a plaque awarded to Height by officials from the Republic of China during an educational tour. The plaque is related to an autographed photograph album described in Series IV. Another item of special interest is an intricate quilt representing the annual Black Family Reunion Celebration, established by Height in 1986. Entitled The Four Sisters Quilt, it includes a textile photo album containing images of Height, her mother and aunts, and family genealogy. This series also includes many items representing Height's long-term membership and presidency of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, including awards, sashes, conference tote bags, and other objects, many of which are inscribed with the sorority's Greek letters. Items are arranged alphabetically.
Dorothy Irene Height was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912, to Fannie Burroughs Height, a nurse, and James E. Height, a self-employed building contractor. Height was the youngest in the tight-knit family that included children from both parents' previous marriages. In 1916, the family moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, a steel mill and mining town near Pittsburgh. Height attended local schools and excelled in her studies. She was also deeply influenced by her Christian upbringing and the public service activities taking place in her community. She learned about women-led organizations from her mother who was a member the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. Other influences came from members of the Delta Sigma Sorority, a nation-wide organization. These experiences provided a strong counterpoint to the racism she encountered throughout her life. In 1929, Height graduated valedictorian from Rankin High School with a four-year college scholarship, which she won in a national oratorical contest sponsored by the Improved, Benevolent, Protective Order of Elks of the World. Despite the challenges of the Great Depression, she was intent on pursuing a career in psychiatry and was initially accepted by Barnard College. When she arrived she was turned away because the College had met its racial quota of two African American students a year. Rather than wait another year, Height applied to New York University and after being accepted, relocated to Harlem to live with her older sister Jessie. Height carried a higher than usual course load, that included majors in the social sciences and educational psychology, supplemented by summer school courses at Hunter College. She earned a BS and MA from the university in four years while supporting herself with odd jobs, including factory work, waiting tables, writing obituaries for funeral parlors, and proofreading The Negro World, published by Marcus Garvey. She continued to expand her education with advanced studies at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
Following graduation, Height briefly worked as an assistant director of the Brownsville Community Center in Brooklyn, New York, before taking on the role of caseworker for the New York City Welfare Department (ca.1934-1937). She also taught courses in religious education at the Columbia University Extension School, and was a founding member and eventual vice-chair of the United Christian Youth Movement of North America; an interdenominational educational and fellowship program focused on real world problems. Height participated in anti-lynching protests, economic boycotts, picketing, and other forms of activism as part of the United Christian Youth Movement, and in collaboration with the Communist backed United Front, the Harlem Youth Council, the American Youth Congress and the NAACP. In the summer of 1937, Height was one of ten American youth delegates selected to participate in the World Conference on Life and Work of the Church in Oxford, England. Following her return in the fall of that year, Height was hired as an assistant executive director at the Harlem Branch of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), which became a critical entry point for working with women led organizations, providing voluntary service that sustained women and their families, and a long term commitment to the civil rights movement. In November, 1937, Height met Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt at a conference organized by the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and held at the YWCA. Bethune, an educator, social activist, and presidential advisor on race relations, was the founding president of the NCNW, described as an "organization of organizations." The organization was primarily formed to support the rights of African American women, their families, and their communities. Approximately 35 women leaders from racially diverse backgrounds responded to Bethune's call to develop a more unified and effective role in public affairs. Their initial meeting, held on December 5, 1935, included Eleanor Roosevelt, an advocate of many political causes; Eva D. Bowles, the first African American to serve as secretary of the National Board of the YWCA; Charlotte Hawkins Brown, founder of the Palmer Institute; Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women, and representatives of churches, sororities, educational, and professional organizations. The NCNW was formally incorporated on June 3, 1936, in the District of Columbia with Bethune as its first president. Bethune and Roosevelt became friends and mentors to Height and provided her with many voluntary tasks that instilled leadership qualities. Conducted on evenings and weekends, these opportunities included positions as NCNW executive secretary and chair of the personnel committee, which required Height to assist in the hiring of full time staff, develop policies, and foster relations between staff and board members. Her assistance to Roosevelt included organizing the World Youth Conference held at Vassar College in 1938.
From the late 1930s through the 1950s, Height held a number of increasingly responsible positions within the YWCA, including Director of the Emma Ransom house, the YWCA's Harlem residence for young women (1938-1939); Executive Director of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC (1939-1944). She also joined the YWCA national staff in New York as Interracial Education Secretary to help promote racial cooperation within its facilities (1944-1945). She was eventually appointed Director of the National YWCA School for Professional Workers, which led to her becoming a visiting professor at the Delhi School for Social Work in India. Her achievements at the YWCA and the NCNW also played a role in the Delta Sigma Sorority long-coveted invitation to become a member. Working as a volunteer, she established successful leadership training and educational programs and eventually became the sorority's 4th president (1947-1956). Height also extended her expertise to local, state and federal government advisory boards and committees focused on improving the lives of women and their families.
In 1957, two years after the death of Mary McLeod Bethune, Height was elected NCNW's fourth president and positioned the organization to play a more visible role in the civil rights movement. In 1963, while serving as director of the YWCA Action Program on Integration, which monitored the progress of integration at its facilities, Height was the only woman working with Movement leaders, often referred to as "The Big Six:" Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and John Lewis. Despite her long history of activism, and major role in organizing the March on Washington, she was not invited to speak at the event and generally ignored by the news media. Undeterred, Height sought ways to alleviate hunger and poverty in the deep south by placing these goals within the broader aims of the civil rights movement. In 1964, Height partnered with Polly Cowan to develop the Wednesdays in Mississippi Project; an interracial and interfaith project that recruited women from the North to travel to southern regions to promote greater communication around civil rights issues, provide support to freedom schools, and assist with voter registration drives. In May of 1966, the NCNW achieved tax exempt status, which helped them to secure grants from the federal government and private foundations. This aid was instrumental in the development of several workshops and self-help projects. Wednesdays in Mississippi became Workshops in Mississippi, one of three workshops with targeted outcomes, that included a childcare center in Ruleville, Mississippi, a home for unwed mothers in Oklona, Mississippi, and opportunities for home ownership. The NCNW also partnered with federal agencies and organizations to sponsor cooperative pig banks, community gardens, and scholarships for civil rights workers.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Height secured grants and congressional support to launch many national and community-based programs, projects and initiatives in response to the most pressing issues in the African American community: teen pregnancy, child care, unemployment, career training and education, reproductive rights and health disparities, particularly among the elderly. Under her leadership, the NCNW also raised funding and successfully lobbied Congress to build a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, which was erected in Lincoln Park, in Washington, DC. Dedicated in July of 1974, it was the first monument of an African American woman to be erected in a public park setting. Other initiatives included establishment of the Bethune Museum and Archives for Black Women, the first repository in the United States to elevate African American women's history, and the preservation of the Bethune Council House as a national historic site. Height also expanded NCNW's internationalism in this period through international conferences and symposiums, studies of women's groups, and the implementation of self-help programs in various African countries. In 1977, Height retired from the national board of the YWCA, but maintained her affiliation through guest lectures, consulting, and conference activities.
With the NCNW as her primary focus, Height continued to head the development, expansion and implementation of programs and projects well into her nineties. In 1986, she initiated the Black Family Reunion Celebration, a multi-faceted program, formed to promote family values and traditions, health awareness, voter registration, and other issues. By the mid-1990s, following the successful launch of the Fund for the Future campaign, the NCNW purchased the historic Sears Building situated on Pennsylvania Avenue in close proximity to the White House. The building serves as the organization's headquarters and houses the National Centers for African American Women and the Dorothy Height Institute. Although Height retired in 1997, she remained active as President Emerita and Chair of the Board. Her continued involvement with NCNW activities, included the launch of successful fundraising strategies to eliminate the mortgage on their new headquarters. She also devoted time to writing her memoir (see Series II). Throughout her career, Height's dedication to the advancement of human rights and social welfare was consistently recognized through numerous awards, honors, and tributes. In 2004, on her 94th birthday, former president George W. Bush presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal, considered the highest civilian award in the United States. Dorothy Height died in 2010, at 98 years old. She is the first and only African American woman to have a Washington, DC post office and library renamed in her honor. The United States Postal Service also issued a Black Heritage stamp bearing her image in 2017. With a global membership of several million women and men, the NCNW continues to actively build on the legacy of public service established by Height and her predecessors.
The collection is arranged in six series:
- Series I. Biographical and personal, 1933-2010, undated (#1.1-6.4, 47FB.1, FD.1-FD.4, F+D.1-F+D.3)
- Series II. National Council of Negro Women, 1935-2012 undated (#6.5-41.11, FD.5-FD.8, F+D.4-F+D.6, OD.1)
- Series III. Other professional work, 1939-2009, undated (#41.12-45.15, F+D.7)
- Series IV. Photographs, ca.1936-2009, undated (#PD.1-PD.30)
- Series V. Audiovisual, 1985-2009, undated (T-571.1-T-571.6, DVD-153.1)
- Series VI. Memorabilia, 1955-2009, undated (#46RBm.1, 48SBm.1-58F+Bm.4)
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Accession number: 2019-M214
The papers of Dorothy I. Height were acquired from the Dorothy I. Height Education Foundation in 2019.
Processed: April 2023
By: Emilyn L. Brown, with assistance from Yolande E. Bennett
The Schlesinger Library attempts to provide a basic level of preservation and access for all collections, and does more extensive processing of higher priority collections as time and resources permit. Finding aids may be updated periodically to account for new acquisitions to the collection and/or revisions in arrangement and description.
General processing procedures in place at the Library include the following: books (when not heavily annotated) by and about the collection's creator and on subjects which fall within the Library's collecting area are removed and cataloged separately with information about their provenance; other books and serials are not retained.
This finding aid contains the outdated term "Negro," which appears in the names of organizations, book titles, reports, audiovisual items and other documents in this collection. Schlesinger archivists may choose to retain outdated, offensive or harmful language in archival description under the following circumstances: 1) such language is an original term used in the archival material being described; 2) reflects historical and/or contextual value; 3) aligns with the preferences of the creator or donor and; 4) facilitates discovery and access.
- Africa, West--Social conditions
- African American civil rights workers
- African American political activists
- African American women
- African American women--Political activity
- African American women--Social conditions
- African American women--Societies and clubs
- African Americans--Civil rights--History--20th century
- Civil rights workers--United States
- Civil rights--United States
- Community cookbooks
- Family records
- Greek letter societies--United States
- Manuscripts for publication
- Mississippi--Social conditions
- Race relations--United States--History--20th century
- Social movements--United States
- United States--Race relations
- Women's rights--United States
- Women--Africa--Social conditions
- Height, Dorothy I. (Dorothy Irene), 1912-2010. Papers of Dorothy I. Height, 1933-2012: A Finding Aid
- Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
- Language of description
- Processing of this collection was made possible by the Sibyl Shainwald Fund at the Schlesinger Library and Class of 1950 Fund. This finding aid is dedicated to the memory of Emilyn Brown by her colleagues. Emilyn was deeply invested in processing this collection, and her thoughtful and thorough work is worthy of Dorothy I. Height’s significant legacy.
- EAD ID
Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository
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