Dorothy Height: Tribute to a Civil Rights pioneer
The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook has been a favorite of mine for years. The nourishing warmth of food, recipes and quilts are the unifying theme of the book. But hidden inside is also the life story of a fascinating civil rights pioneer.
The book’s title comes from the early African-American tradition of placing a quilt on the table at holiday meals as a table covering. At each place setting would also be a piece of paper with the name of a relative or an important character in African-American history. Each person at the table was responsible for conveying information about that person, carrying forward the oral history of the family and culture.
In the pages of this simple cookbook, I became acquainted with the colorful quilt-like pieces of the life of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. I marveled at vignettes from her life that were interwoven with recipes from the culture she cherished. And if Rosa Parks was the mother of the civil rights movement, she was the queen.
In yesterday’s vernacular, she was a Negro, born in 1912, in an era when the only thing expected of women was to marry and bear children. Dr. Height did neither. Instead, she was born to lead. And lead she did, as she worked to give women and families of color, equality in a racially segregated society.
If you’ve read the news reports of her death, you know that she was an activist at an early age. As a teenager, she marched in Times Square shouting, “Stop the Lynching!” She led the integration of the YWCA, organized and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and was the president of the National Council of Negro Women for 41 years. She was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.
In the book, humiliating stories of segregation are skillfully woven among the recipes and her personal life experiences. But the differences between the early 20th century and the late 20th century are staggering. Eating and sleeping while traveling in the Deep South could be particularly difficult for people of color in that earlier era. One anonymous contributor tells this story:
“Dorothy came down to Nashville from New York City to interview for a job. She arrived hungry for breakfast but … we couldn’t take her into the train station restaurant. It was against the law for them to serve colored and white in the same place.
“We had fixed a nice little meal with homemade bread, fried chicken, boiled eggs and something sweet. We wrapped it up nicely and packed it in a shoebox. That’s what a lot of Negroes did when they had to travel in the south. We talked about how hard it was to do any kind of meaningful work when you had to face the kind of bigotry. She didn’t take the job and went back up north to work.” Another piece in her quilt.
She faced a different kind of segregation in Harlem as a 25-year old college graduate with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work. While working as an assistant director for the Harlem YWCA she received word that then First-lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune (founder and leader of the National Council of Negro Women), were going to pay a visit. Her task was to escort Mrs. Roosevelt into the meeting that Bethune was conducting.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Roosevelt came alone! There was no Secret Service with her, no advance team to check security, no press or photographers. She had just hopped into her roadster, drove herself into Harlem, parked the car and headed for the meeting.
Height, of course, was excited and looked forward to meeting the president’s wife and doing a good job. All was going well until a maintenance man told her there was a problem. In those days, there were three entrances to the building and everyone entered through the appropriate door. They were labeled: Administration, Residences and Service (for the colored people).
Well, the maintenance man said Mrs. Roosevelt was headed for the Service entrance. Dorothy could see her job going down the drain if the First Lady went in the wrong door. So she ran down the hall, intercepted her and escorted her into the meeting through the proper entrance. After the meeting, Mrs. Roosevelt drove back home to Hyde Park.
The meeting between Height and Mary McLeod Bethune, however, changed the landscape of the NCNW forever. Bethune recognized Height’s enthusiasm and potential and invited her to join the National Council. Eventually she became its fourth president in 1953. The rest, as they say, is history and her life’s quilt expanded exponentially.
She worked tirelessly her entire life to break down racial barriers and promote mutual respect. She organized “Wednesdays in Mississippi,” to bring together white and black women; headed up the YWCA’s Office of Racial Justice; suffered in Selma, Alabama and worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. She was well into her eighties when she resigned as president, still wearing her beautiful hats.
The Black Family Dinner Quilt Cookbook pieces together the quilt of the civil rights story around the dinner table. Over a meal in homes, train stations and restaurants, stories were and are passed from generation to generation: the successes, the losses, the closed doors, the tears and laughter on the road to freedom and equality.
Dr. Height was 98 years old when she died last week. From the Jim Crow era to the United State's first black president, Barack Obama, she was a legend in civil rights history.
There’s just one thing missing in her obituaries — she was also a great cook. Her sweet potato pies always garnered raves at dinner parties, adding another square to her colorful quilt of life.
Yes, there are still a few loose ends to tie up on Height's road to equality but her quilt of life is complete.
Thank you and rest in peace, Dr. Height.