Sunday Story: ‘The Godmother’ – Richmond magazine

Although Dorothy Irene Height is a nationally revered civil rights figure, her link to Richmond has not received much attention here in the city of her birth.

That will change on March 24, when Height’s achievements will be publicly recognized with the installment of two historical markers in the Manchester area, where she lived until moving to Pennsylvania at age 4.

Height, who was born in Richmond on March 24, 1912, and died in 2010 at age 98, led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years, beginning in 1957. During the civil rights movement, she was the only woman frequently identified as an equal with the “Big Six” leaders, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, John Lewis, Whitney Young, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins. Height was on the dais with King during his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington in 1963, but did not address the crowd. She often used her keen organizational skills and political savvy to enact change behind the scenes.

About a decade ago, Renata Hedrington Jones of Richmond had a chance to meet the civil rights trailblazer in Washington, D.C., during a gathering called the Dorothy Height Social Justice Symposium, where Hedrington Jones was assigned to shadow her.

“I’m not usually at a loss for words. I’m always at the front of things,” says Hedrington Jones, who retired from a career in social work with Richmond Public Schools and is a faculty member at Walden University’s Barbara Solomon School of Social Work & Human Services in Minneapolis. “When I met her, I could not speak. And she held my hand she said, ‘Baby, calm down, it’s going to be OK.’ … She said, ‘You’re going to have to save that energy, because the struggle’s not over.’ ”

At the symposium, Height spoke compellingly about the role of African-American social workers in advocating for justice and making sure that marginalized people are treated fairly, Hedrington Jones says.

Before becoming president and CEO of the National Council of Negro Women, Height was a volunteer in the organization that was founded in 1935 by activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune. The council was created as an advocacy organization to increase opportunities and quality of life for African-American women.

Height’s involvement in the organization led to her close friendship not just with Bethune, but also first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights luminaries.

Prior to assuming the council’s leadership, Height served from 1947 to 1956 as president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a private, nonprofit organization of predominantly black, college-educated women that assists people in need around the world. Height is credited for carrying the sorority to a new level of organizational development. Since its founding in 1913, the group has grown to more than 200,000 members.

One of the markers to be installed in Height’s honor was commissioned by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources as part of an effort about 10 years ago to incorporate more diversity in the topics covered by the state’s highway markers. Julie Langan, director of the department, says that of more than 2,600 markers in Virginia, just 301 are associated with African-American history. The marker for Height was cast, but never installed. Then, after talks last year about historic district status in the Manchester and Blackwell neighborhoods, a committee formed to plan the marker’s unveiling, Langan says. Pride in the Blackwell community and a desire to preserve its history were themes that emerged during those meetings.

The marker notes Height’s veneration as “the Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” her work as an advocate for African-American rights and for the social and economic well-being of black women, children and families.

However, because the state’s marker failed to mention Height’s work with Delta Sigma Theta, the sorority’s Richmond alumnae chapter, comprising more than 450 members, recently commissioned a second marker to commemorate Height. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the sorority.)

Thus, on Sunday, March 24, a date that coincides with Height’s birthday, both markers will be installed in front of the Richmond Public Library’s Hull Street Branch at 1400 Hull St. The installation will take place after a 3 p.m. program honoring Height at First Baptist Church of South Richmond, 1501 Decatur St.

Doris Burroughs Mallory Bey, chairwoman of the Richmond chapter of Delta Sigma Theta’s Political Awareness and Involvement Committee, said the organization commissioned the second marker to ensure that the community is aware of Height’s service with Delta Sigma Theta.

Connie Cuffee, the sorority’s Richmond chapter president, adds that under Height’s leadership, Delta became affiliated with organizations such as the YWCA, the American Red Cross, Girl Scouts of America and UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

“During this time, Delta strengthened its role in social action, and the power makers in Washington noticed,” Cuffee says. “Delta Sigma Theta was consulted by the Congress of the United States and the White House on major legislation brought forth at that time.”

Always immaculately dressed, Height wore her signature hats and white gloves as more than mere accessories. They were designed to soften her approach in meetings with leaders such as President Dwight Eisenhower, whom she encouraged to desegregate public schools, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, when urging him to appoint black women to government positions.

Years before assuming leadership of the National Council of Negro Women, Height began carving a career marked by advocacy and activism through her work in government welfare agencies and the Harlem YWCA. Deeply religious and intent on serving others, Height helped secure jobs, housing and other opportunities for hundreds of migrant black women from the South who streamed into New York in search of a better life.

In her memoir, “Open Wide the Freedom Gates,” Height describes how she worked to fight New York’s “slave market,” a system of labor where white people from the suburbs would drive in and pick out domestic workers from a street corner. This was an exploitative system in which workers worked long hours for little pay, no benefits or any way to improve their working conditions.

A quest for better job opportunities led Height’s parents to move the family from Richmond to Rankin, Pennsylvania, where her father worked in construction and her mother worked as a private nurse.

Gifted and studious throughout her school years, Height was valedictorian of her 1929 Rankin High School class and used her speechwriting skills to win a $1,000 scholarship in a national contest. Denied entry into Barnard College because of its racial quotas, Height enrolled in New York University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in educational psychology in four years. Honorary doctoral degrees from several universities led to her being addressed as “Dr. Height” by her legions of fans.

Cynthia Kidd Alexander of Atlanta is one such admirer. Alexander, who grew up in Richmond and graduated from Maggie L. Walker High School in 1965, met Height in 1997 while working in the Washington area. For several years, they collaborated on initiatives to improve communities, housing and education in the District’s Woodridge neighborhood.

While comfortable mingling with politicians and luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, Height found commonality with people in just about any setting. When Alexander remarried several years ago, she says, Height attended the wedding in Maryland unaccompanied by fanfare.

“Although she always had a direct link to the White House, she never conducted herself like a politician,” says Alexander. “She was a phenomenal woman who did all this work behind the scenes.”

It’s important for Height’s example to be remembered and taught, and for younger generations to know “the great things that come out of Richmond,” Hedrington Jones says. “What she stood for is a foundation for us to build upon continuously.”

Never miss a Sunday Story: Sign up for the newsletter, and we’ll drop a fresh read into your inbox at the start of each week. To keep up with the latest posts, search for the hashtag #SundayStory on Twitter and Facebook.