Dorothy Irene Height (1957–98)

In 1957, Dorothy Irene Height became the fourth president of the National Council of Negro Women. Introduced to Bethune and the council in 1937, she had served for twenty years in a number of appointive positions that provided her a unique opportunity to understand every aspect of the NCNW. Prior to her election as NCNW president, she served for thirteen years as a member of the YWCA National Board staff and for eight years as the president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. By 1957, she understood the many dimensions of a national organization and was ready to assume the leadership of the major national black women’s organization. She had several mentors, but none had more impact than Mary McLeod Bethune.

Coming to power on the eve of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, Dorothy Height was determined to make the National Council of Negro Women the organization Bethune intended it to be. The groundwork necessary to achieve this goal was laid between 1958 and 1965; between 1966 and 1980, the growth of the organization was little less than phenomenal. The election of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1980 effectively checked the NCNW’s growth and to some extent the growth of other major black organizations that had become dependent on the federal government’s largess.

The NCNW had in the 1980s received a number of government and foundation grants that allowed it to enlarge the national staff and relocate its headquarters. Struggling to maintain the large staff and NCNW offices catapulted the organization into debt and forced it to scale back its national staff. While it continues to maintain a high profile and a commitment to international programs, it has not been able to mount major domestic programs.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Height developed the NCNW into an international corporation with a highly trained professional staff, and with capabilities for program delivery and advocacy seldom realized by voluntary organizations. In spite of many contradictions and problems, Dorothy Height has been able to maintain the illusion of power that Bethune affected during the early years. During the late 1930s, Bethune frequently stated that the NCNW represented 500,000 women, which was the collective membership of the fourteen NCNW affiliates. In the 1940s, the figure was adjusted to one million. Until the late 1980s, Height maximized this image of power and gained political capital by stating that she represented four million women. Bethune and Height were accurate in their projections of the number of black women represented through the membership of affiliate organizations; however, the public, particularly white Americans, perceived the NCNW, Bethune, and Height as more powerful than they actually were. The idea of NCNW’s representative power has been particularly attractive to predominantly white, politically oriented governmental agencies or organizations seeking to identify one representative of a diverse constituency for a variety of purposes, including sponsorship of government-funded community service projects.Dorothy Height during her tenure has moved the NCNW to a new level. Following her election, the NCNW began to move in new directions to solve a number of old problems, introduce program initiatives more tailored to the times, and find new ways to institutionalize the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune and the national council concept. Questions regarding finances, membership development, public relations, interpretation of the national council concept, and the functioning of local councils and regions were candidly addressed by Dorothy Height and the board of directors.

In particular, Dorothy Height saw the acquisition of tax-exempt status as the key to solving many financial problems, for it would make the NCNW more attractive to philanthropists, foundations, and other potential donors who were reluctant to give large sums of money for which they would be taxed. Because of the council’s emphasis on legislative and political activities, this status had been consistently denied to the council under Bethune. Under Height’s direction, the Articles of Incorporation were revised and the base of the NCNW’s educational and charitable programs broadened. In 1966, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that NCNW was tax-exempt.

Acquiring tax-exempt status was viewed by many as the biggest news in NCNW’s history because it paved the way for grants and contributions that made growth and expansion possible. The simultaneous announcement of two major grants for programs to recruit and train African-American women for volunteer community service was cause for great celebration. Grants of $300,000 from the Ford Foundation and $154,193 from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare meant that for the first time in its thirty-one-year history, the NCNW would be able to expand its quarters and staff and develop more effective community service programs. Height announced that the grants provided the NCNW with resources to mobilize a nationwide network to work within a variety of communities, middle-class and poor, Negro and white, to carry out needed community service and social action programs.

After 1965, major program priorities focused on issues related to youth, employment, housing, health, consumerism, hunger and malnutrition, civil rights, volunteerism, women’s issues, international problems, and family life. From 1965 to 1980, they sponsored at least forty national projects; about one-fourth were related to youth; another fourth targeted women’s issues. Operation Sisters United, Youth Career Development, Health Careers, National Collaboration for Children and Youth, New Roles for Volunteers, the National Immunization Program, the Fannie Lou Hamer Day Care Center, Volunteers Unlimited, and Ujamma are some of the programs designed to respond to problems concerning youth unemployment, delinquency, teenage pregnancy and parenthood, and health care, and to stress the need for education in areas where black professionals are underrepresented. Operation Cope, Women’s Rights and Housing, Women’s Opportunity, Project Woman Power, the NCNW Leadership Development Project, and the Women’s Learning Center explored problems related to lower-income women, single heads of households, sexism, employment, the acquisition of management skills, education, household workers, and affirmative action.

Under Height’s direction, the NCNW’s historic concern for working with women in the African-American diaspora and maintaining advocacy on international issues has been a key focus. Following forty years of international program emphasis, in 1975, the NCNW, with a grant from the Agency for International Development, established an international division. The division formalized ongoing NCNW work in this area and provided a unique opportunity for black American women to work with women in Africa, the Caribbean, and other parts of the world. In 1979, this division concluded an agreement with the director for educational and cultural affairs of the International Communication Agency for a “Twinning” program involving the NCNW and the national women’s organizations of Senegal and Togo.

Employment issues have been central to the NCNW’s efforts to advance the economic status of black women and their families. With the “Hold Your Job” campaigns of the 1940s, the NCNW had sponsored seminars and conferences and developed extensive program materials on this topic. The 1970 opening of the Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement for Minority Women extended the NCNW’s commitment to minority women employed at all levels of business. The center, located in New York City, now offers a variety of programs and services. Education and career consultation and an educational program geared toward gaining and keeping employment are features of the center. In cooperation with Pace University, the center sponsors an associate degree program that emphasizes the skills and knowledge necessary for advancement in business. In 1976, the center published a detailed curriculum guide that offered all NCNW sections and affiliates, government agencies, and business training programs an instructional package useful for the development of educational programs for women employed in entry-level positions in large corporations and financial institutions.

In the last five years, the NCNW’s domestic program has focused largely on Black Family Reunion celebrations. To address the many negative images of the black family, in 1986 the NCNW launched a culturally based event emphasizing the historic strengths and traditional values of the black family. The celebrations are reminiscent of the large state fairs and festivals of the past. The events consist of workshops, issue forums, exhibits, and demonstrations anchored by extensive entertainment. They have helped to renew the NCNW’s public role, and signify its reentry into national public policy discussions.