America's history of civil rights recognizes many giants: Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks – the list goes on. But one titan often gets left off the list. Dorothy Irene Height helped convince President Dwight Eisenhower to desegregate schools, encouraged President Lyndon Johnson to appoint black women to government positions, counseled First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, stood next to Dr. King when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, and sat on the stage for President Barack Obama's first inauguration. Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of her birthday, a moment celebrated by a Google Doodle in her honor.
Over nearly 80 years of service, Ms. Height fought for the rights of African Americans, women, and handicapped people. Yet her vast career was nearly nipped in the bud.
After growing up in a steel town outside Pittsburgh, she was admitted to Barnard College in New York. However once she arrived on campus in 1929, administrators told her that she needed to leave. The school had an unwritten rule that it would only accept two black students per year. Height was the odd women out.
But this policy did not slow her down.
"Too distraught to call home, as she later wrote, Ms. Height did the only thing possible," the New York Times wrote in her 2010 obituary. "Clutching her Barnard acceptance letter, she took the subway downtown to New York University. She was admitted at once, earning a bachelor’s degree in education there in 1933 and a master’s in psychology two years later."
In fact, Barnard turned away another future public servant that same year. Sylva Gelber, who played a role in the women's movement in Canada, was rejected because “the Jewish quota was already filled.”
Just as Ms. Gelber went on to work in the United Nations, Height led the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years. She served on government boards, building relationships with high-powered figures in politics and business, and was considered the "glue" that held black civil rights leaders together. If you had not heard of Height before today, it's because much of her work went on behind the scenes. She worked best in private meetings and quiet conversations – away from the public spotlight.
"Ever since she was denied entrance to college because the incoming class had already met its quota of two African American women, Dr. Height devoted her life to those struggling for equality," Mr. Obama said in a statement after her death.
Her accomplishments were not lost on Barnard. In 1980, the school apologized to Height and awarded her its highest honor, the Barnard Medal of Distinction. Then, in 2004, 75 years after it shooed her away, Barnard offered her an honorary degree.
"Denying Dr. Height the opportunity to attend Barnard was an egregious decision that truly saddens all of us at the college," Barnard President Debora Spar wrote in 2010. "We join in celebrating her inspiring achievements as a leader of the civil rights movement, a crusader for justice and a fearless role model for young women everywhere."