NASW Foundation National Programs
NASW Social Work Pioneers®
Dorothy Irene Height
Dorothy Height was born in Richmond Virginia on March 24, 1912 . She was educated in public schools in Rankin, Pennsylvania, a small town near Pittsburgh where her family moved when she was four. Dr. Height established herself early as a dedicated student with exceptional oratorical skills which won her a $1,000 scholarship in a national oratorical contest. Her prize money enabled her to enroll at New York University where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Education and a Master's degree in Educational Psychology. She did further postgraduate work at Columbia University and the New York School of Social Work.
Dr. Height held many positions in government and social service organizations, but she was best known for her leadership roles in the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).
At the YWCA, Dr. Height rose rapidly through the ranks from a post with the Harlem YWCA in New York City to several staff positions of increasing responsibility in the organization. Of her years at the YWCA, Dr. Height was proudest of her efforts to direct the attention of the organization to issues of racial justice. During the YWCA's 1946 convention, Dr. Height coordinated the introduction of a policy to integrate its facilities nationwide and was elected national interracial education secretary of the organization. In 1965, the YWCA named Dr. Height the first director of its new Center for Racial Justice. In 1970, the YWCA National Convention adopted the One Imperative: "To thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism, wherever it exists by any means necessary."
Dr. Height's ongoing affiliation with NCNW began with her meeting Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the organization, on November 7, 1937 – a date Dr. Height referred to as the turning point of her life. So began her lifelong affiliation with NCNW - working closely with Mrs. Bethune at first; as the fourth elected president of the organization from 1957 – February 2, 1998 ; and as Chairperson of its Board of Directors and President Emerita since 1997. As NCNW president, Dr. Height helped organize and coordinate the 1963 March on Washington. With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, A. Phillip Randolph and others she participated in virtually all major civil and human rights efforts in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. She was in the forefront of the quest and advocacy for women's rights to full and equal employment, pay and education – in the United States and countries throughout the world.
Dr. Height's commitment to international work in her field began in earnest in 1952 when she served as visiting professor at the University of Delhi, India. She continued her international work with her involvement in the Women's Federation of the World Council of Churches, and began her work in South Africa after accompanying Margaret Hickey, the then chair of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid there in 1974. Dr. Height returned to work with the Black Women's Federation of South Africa in 1977 and several times thereafter.
For her tireless efforts on behalf of the less fortunate, President Ronald Reagan presented her with the Citizens' Medal Award for distinguished service in 1989. Dr. Height received many other awards during her lifetime of service, including over twenty-four honorary degrees.
In a ceremony honoring her lifetime of achievements, held in the United States Capital Rotunda in Washington, D.C. on March 24, 2004, Dr Height was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. She joined the august company of some 300 other Gold Medal recipients, among these, George Washington, the first recipient of the Medal in 1776, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Rosa Parks.
On September 7, 2004, Dr. Height was inducted into the Democracy Hall of Fame International on the Capitol Hill Campus of the National Graduate University in Washington, D.C. The Hall of Fame for Democracy – the first of its kind in the world - was created by former members of Congress and others on the governing board of the National Graduate University as part of the University's mission "to strengthen the democratic freedoms that make possible our science, economic enterprise, [and] rule of law, and encourage improvement in eve every sphere of life." She received the National Association of Social Workers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
In her selfless determination and extraordinary leadership in advancing women's rights, and her dedication to the liberation of Black America, Dr. Height fulfilled the dreams of her friend and mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune. She exemplified democracy at its very best and is a "true role model for everyone."