After 75 Years, Barnard Makes Activist an Alumna
Honorary Status Is Given Woman Who Was Turned Away
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2004; Page A03
NEW YORK, June 3 -- Seventy-five years after she passed an entrance exam to Barnard College, Dorothy I. Height Thursday became an alumna.
That status, bestowed at an Alumnae of Color dinner, was honorary. Height, now 92, never attended Barnard. In 1929, she rushed to the prestigious Seven Sisters college clutching an acceptance letter but was denied entrance because of her color. The school's quota for black students -- two -- was full.
"I came all the way from Rankin, Pa.," said Height, who had attended integrated schools all her life. "I could barely eat or sleep" after school officials rejected her. "It was such a shock to me. I never thought there would be a racial quota." Height instead attended New York University, where she received bachelor's and master's degrees in four years -- and went on to a lifetime of leadership in the civil rights movement.
Barnard College President Judith Shapiro read a citation praising Height and bestowing alumna status on her to mark the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's ruling against de jure segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. "We were enthusiastic to do this," Shapiro said in an interview, "and we are grateful that she is willing to see that times have changed and to forgive her alma mater."
Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, the Alumnae of Color member who suggested the award, said, "It's an important statement for all the women of color who have come through Barnard. . . . This college has taken on the responsibility of acknowledging the horrible deed that happened to Dr. Height."
Barnard's honors add to the many already in Height's trophy case. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and earlier this year President Bush presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award from the federal government. Bush praised Height as a citizen who helped extend the promise of freedom to millions, and said, "We recognize a hero."
Two years ago, African Americans granted her one of the warmest tributes the community gives. Television talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actor Bill Cosby, activist Coretta Scott King, comedian Dick Gregory and boxing promoter Don King were among hundreds who donated $5 million to pay off the mortgage on the Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, which Height directed for decades.
"Ms. Height is the epitome of what we are," civil rights activist and recent presidential candidate Al Sharpton said that March night. "In many ways, her life celebrates our development as a people and as a community."
Rosa Parks is the mother of the civil rights movement, Pennsylvania activist C. Delores Tucker once told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but "Dorothy Height is the queen."
Height was born in Richmond and moved at age 4 to Rankin, Pa., a mostly European immigrant town outside Pittsburgh, with her father, James Height, and her mother, Fannie. Her activism started at age 11, when she volunteered to read to white preschoolers at the Rankin Christian Center, where social programs were segregated.
A year later, she became a poster child for the YWCA Girls Reserve Club, yet the Pittsburgh YWCA barred her from swimming lessons at a whites-only pool. Working for the organization as an adult in 1946, Height led every YWCA in the nation to adopt an interracial charter for full integration.
Height was a civil rights activist long before then. In November 1937, a few weeks after she started working at the Harlem YWCA, she met Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, two women whose activism would direct the course of her life.
Bethune had just founded the National Council of Negro Women, and Roosevelt was speaking on behalf of Bethune, her friend. Height was assigned to escort Roosevelt to a meeting. The young worker was so mannerly that Bethune asked her name, appointed her to a committee in her organization and "drew me into her dazzling orbit of people," Height wrote in her memoir, "Open Wide the Freedom Gates."
She joined Bethune's crusade to end poll taxes, lynching and unfair employment practices. That work pushed her into the modern civil rights movement, and Height found herself sitting an arm's length from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington in 1963.
But even on that stage, in one of the movement's most triumphant moments, Height saw discrimination within her own group, the United Civil Rights Leadership. On the morning of the march, Height and others appealed to organizer Bayard Rustin to allow at least one woman to speak.
Rustin refused. Women were represented in the church and other organizations, he said. Mahalia Jackson, the gospel vocalist, sang the national anthem as Height and others sat, seen but not heard.
"That moment was vital to awakening the women's movement," she said. "Mr. Rustin's stance showed us that men honestly didn't see their position as . . . patronizing."
Last night, she said her commitment to the movement resulted partly from her initial rejection from Barnard. "It certainly quickened my interest," she said. "Having this firsthand experience as a young adult helped me realize the work that lay ahead."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company