On April 29, 2010, many District of Columbia residents rose before dawn to make a pilgrimage to the National Cathedral to pay their respect to the life of a woman that President Barack Obama would eulogize as never being a self-promoter. The lines circled around Massachusetts Avenue and continued down Wisconsin Avenue as thousands of people waiting for the doors of the sixth largest cathedral in the nation to open to the public for the funeral of Dorothy Irene Height.
The conversations that filled the cool spring morning air were all about Dorothy Height as people shared how she had affected their lives. People told stories of some kind act that Height had performed. The present writer remembered seeing her in 1991 and remembering how she greeted quests at her annual Black Family Reunion on the National Mall and the way her young ladies in the National Council of Negro Women wore their black dresses and white pearls when he was the keynote speaker for the Howard University chapter in February of 1999 for his last Martin Luther King oration of the twentieth century.
The scene inside the National Cathedral was an amazing gathering of the most famous African-American leaders and celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Bill and Camille Crosby, Maya Angelou, Vincent Gray, and others. The people stood together, all singing together, holding hands, and remembering the life of a great woman. President Barack Obama gave one of the most memorable speeches about how Dorothy Height had achieved so much without promoting herself. “She was not a self-promoter,” Obama said. His words rang out across the room as the notables all shook their heads in agreement. Four years after her death his words still rang true. Dorothy Height is remembered because her life was true. It was not necessary for her to promote herself because she had lived an exemplary life and her life spoke for itself.
Height also knew that one of the great dangers facing the African-American family was the epidemic of African-American men who had relations with African American women that resulted in the birth of a child and led to the men leaving the relationship without supporting the child. From a historical perspective African-American men shared a tragic history that resulted from American slavery. African-American men in the slavery could not take responsibility for raising their children because the child was actually the property of the white slave master. African-American men were often used to breed children for property for the white slave masters and then were not allowed to have any involvement with the child they created. After 200 years of slavery the damage to the African-American family structure was damaged. Height knew that a family consisted of a mother, father, and child. A father was responsible for taking care of his child.
She taught girls to become women. Not just women but women of grace and dignity. Having taught many women who were members of the National Council of Negro Women it was clear they carried themselves with great self-respect and dignity. Lori Terrell was a member of the National Council of Negro Women and a student of the present writer. She reflected that grace and dignity that Dorothy Height instilled in her members. The qualities of never using profanity, speaking like ladies, acting like future mothers, all of these things were part of the legacy of Dorothy Height. She taught young women lessons that no one else taught them. It was ok to be a woman of culture and dignity. Height encouraged African-American women to go to college and to refrain from intimate relations with African-American men until they were married.
Her advice was priceless. She said to always place the care of a child as the most important function that a man had to his family. Attending the Black Family Reunion every year with Height was a lesson in being a good mother and father. She sacrificed her life to help other men and women to become good parents. The history books will remember her as one of the great leaders of the National Council of Negro Women after Founder Mary McLeod Bethune; however, for those she advised personally, they will remember her as a great mother and example for all mothers past and future.
Above all Dorothy Irene Height was a woman of character and integrity that was beyond reproach. The amazing thing is that Obama was right about Height never promoting herself. She never talked about the things she had done, she never brought attention to herself. Yet, people loved her, people remembered her, and people followed her. But in a world where only those who stand out from the crowd are remembered how did Height achieve such fame. The Answer is that Height did not need to promote herself because other people promoted her. Other people talked about what she had done for them. It was not necessary for Height to promote herself. She led an exemplary life and she should be a role model for African-American women and for the nation.
Dorothy Irene Height (1912-2010) will always be remembered for her service to the nation. This Mother's Day on Sunday May 10, 2014, remember Dorothy Irene Height and great mothers everywhere.