Dr. Dorothy Irene Height died Tuesday morning at age 98. Best known for her ongoing fight to right civil wrongs, I’ll always remember feeling honored just to be in her presence.
In my 20-plus years as a newspaper and magazine journalist, rarely have I ever cared about the star status of the many celebrities I’ve interviewed. Famous actors, authors, musicians, whatever – it was often nice to meet them, and it was great they achieved what they did, but there was no shock and awe.
But for me, Dorothy Height was on another level, as were other civil rights leaders, both celebrated and not. I cannot recall the time or place, I just know she had on a powder blue outfit and a matching hat. I remember she was surrounded by other, sharply dressed African-American women, and being grateful I chose to wear a suit that day. We were halfway into a hallway, halfway into a room, and it was incredibly crowded. It seems we were waiting to enter some location. A church comes to mind. And it had to have been between 1990 and 1995, when I lived in the D.C. area.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned I have a memory capacity of about nine minutes. But I remember faces and places, and the lyrics to just about every R&B song since the 1960s. (Remember Function at the Junction? I do. And it’s on my iPod.) I remember Arsenio Hall had the longest fingers I’d ever seen on a human, and that windshield on John Grisham’s Jeep Cherokee had a small crack in it.
Even though the story I was writing was not about her, specifically, I spent a long time just listening to her answers, wishing that it were. Sure, I’d always been taught to respect my elders, but I didn’t view her as an elder, but an icon.
I would see her time and again at different Washington functions over the years. She was easy to spot because of those hats. Since the occasions were social and not work-related, I would address this past national president of Delta Sigma Theta as “soror.” That felt special.
Back in 2008, the National Council of Negro Women partnered with the National Institutes of Health to battle obesity among African Americans. Back then, Dorothy Height was quoted as saying “Now is the time to act. I think we’ve come to realize that unless we deal with the health of our people, we won’t have the privilege of exercising all of their rights, so we’re making health a priority.”
Since then, NCNW chapters across the country have developed initiatives to help children, especially, overcome obesity – long before Michelle Obama sounded the alarm.
Rest in peace, Soror Height.
Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals. ~ Dorothy Height
Leslie J. Ansley is an award-winning journalist and entrepreneur who blogs daily for TheRoot. She lives in Raleigh, NC.