Open Wide The Freedom Gates

A Memoir


By Dorothy Height

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Dorothy Height marched at civil rights rallies, sat through tense White House meetings, and witnessed every major victory in the struggle for racial equality. Yet as the sole woman among powerful, charismatic men, someone whose personal ambition was secondary to her passion for her cause, she has received little mainstream recognition — until now. In her memoir, Dr. Height, now ninety-one, reflects on a life of service and leadership. We witness her childhood encounters with racism and the thrill of New York college life during the Harlem Renaissance. We see her protest against lynchings. We sit with her onstage as Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech. We meet people she knew intimately throughout the decades: W.E.B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., Langston Hughes, and many others. And we watch as she leads the National Council of Negro Women for forty-one years, her diplomatic counsel sought by U.S. Presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.

After the fierce battles of the 1960s, Dr. Height concentrates on troubled black communities, on issues like rural poverty, teen pregnancy and black family values. In 1994, her efforts are officially recognized. Along with Rosa Parks, she receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.


Praise for
Open Wide the Freedom Gates
"Rich with historic details, [Open Wide the Freedom Gates] is a humble account of a magnificent life's work."
"Befitting her generation of strong women, [Dr. Height] reveals herself to be made of grace and a titanium backbone... Put her inspiring memoir on your daughter's summer reading list—and your own."
Baltimore Sun
"[Open Wide the Freedom Gates] gives a poignant short course in a century of African-American history."
The New York Times Book Review
"A long-awaited memoir from a veteran freedom fighter and witness to history... in this personal and inspiring story of [Dorothy Height's] lifelong fight for civil rights, she reflects on her life of service and leadership, from her childhood encounters with racism, the thrill of college life during the Harlem Renaissance, her marches against lynching, her place on stage with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his pivotal 'I Have Dream' speech and her diplomatic counsel sought by U.S. presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton."
"If Hillary Clinton weren't already making such good use of it, Living History would be an apt title for Dorothy Height's memoirs . . . a long-awaited event for those who have badgered Height for years to tell her story."
New Orleans Times-Picayune
"In its foreword Maya Angelou describes Height, now 91, as a giant among mighty women. And, indeed, she is a gentle, persistent giant for human progress."
Detroit Free Press
"The history of the civil rights movement is made fuller and more complete by [Dorothy Height's] compelling memoir."
The Miami Herald
"Ms. Height brings women's roles and projects [in the civil rights movement] out of the shadows with this crisp, clear reflection on her work as she toiled alongside such legendary figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, as well as everyday women of all races."
Dallas Morning News
"Her sheer conviction makes the book more readable than most memoirs. The pearls of insight, wisdom and courage she graciously shares should draw and satiate anyone who wants to better understand America's 20th century, the race and gender dynamics we still grapple with today, and how one woman has walked and talked a mantra of diversity throughout her long and distinguished life."
The Crisis
"A straightforward tale, full of information—and yet underlying it all, beneath the unemotional recitation of history, it tells a triumphant and amazing story."
Deseret News
"As an activist and woman of great significance to the preservation of American democracy, Dorothy Height has experienced America at many crossroads.... This [book] is a tribute to the legacy of intelligent womanhood. It is a thought-provoking story about what it takes to enact change and embody the spirit of liberation. It is a privilege, indeed an honor, to experience this journey with Dorothy Height."
Black Issues Book Review
"For the reader who is seeking an autobiography that is well written and witty, but also offers humanity and a personable style, pick up . . . Open Wide the Freedom Gates."
Chicago Defender
"Dorothy Height is the most prominent civil rights leader you've probably never heard of... 'While Rosa Parks is the mother of the civil rights movement,' noted Pennsylvania activist C. DeLores Tucker once said, 'Dorothy Height is the queen.'"
—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"For decades, Dr. Dorothy Height has been an unsung heroine. But not anymore. At 91, Height finally tells her life story in this eloquent memoir, which chronicles her life and her historic role in the civil rights movement... Open Wide the Freedom Gates provides an intriguing history lesson."
San Antonio Express News
"Height's book is not just a remarkable account of her role in some of the 20th century's most defining moments. It is also the story of her unflagging courage in the face of its heady battles . . . Height is a woman of many gifts, not the least of which is her inspiring legacy of altruism and activism, as detailed in this important memoir."
The Virginian-Pilot
"An important resource for anyone with an interest in the long and continuing struggle for equality and social justice . . . The memoir reveals a woman with the capacity to learn and grow continuously, a woman passionate about doing good."
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
"[Open Wide the Freedom Gates'] value for historians of the civil rights era and of black women's organizations is central."
Publishers Weekly
"An intimate and extended vision of the Civil Rights movement, from a very special black women's perspective. This memoir by a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom is essential for any collection on civil rights, black women, or 20th century U.S. history."
Library Journal (starred review)
"Height walks us step-by-step through a remarkable lifetime of witnessing every significant event in the fight for racial equality . . . Amusingly, Height's matter-of-fact tone recounting her experiences belies the magnitude of their historical significance... What is most striking about this book is Height's recurring insistence (and proof!) that a sincere commitment to excellence is the tool that can afford remarkable opportunities to everyone."
"This book will make sure you understand just how important Dorothy Height is to America's history. Dorothy Height has spent over ninety years moving the mountains of racial and human injustice. You'll understand why Dorothy Height has never taken the time to promote herself, to elbow her way into photo-ops, to say controversial things, and grab the headlines. No, instead, this book tells you how Dorothy Height got some extremely important things done by staying out of the limelight. Mountains move very slowly—that's why you maybe never noticed Dorothy Height."
—Bill Cosby
"With her clarity of vision, her eloquent voice for justice and human decency and her courageous and determined leadership, Dr. Dorothy Height has been a great inspiration to me. In the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, she was the only woman in the decision-making councils of the male leadership. Dorothy was always there, and she has continued to be there, before and after. As this wonderful memoir reveals, she has been in the forefront of the major struggles for civil and human rights in our times as a compelling advocate. Her historic contributions on behalf of women and families, the poor, the victims of racial and sex discrimination, the disadvantaged, downtrodden and forgotten people of our country have made America a more just and compassionate nation."
—Coretta Scott King
"[Dr. Height is] a legend in her own time. . . . Some say life is in the breath we take. I believe life is in the moments that take our breath away. Every time I'm in the presence of Dr. Dorothy Height is a moment that takes my breath away."
—Tavis Smiley

PublicAffairs New York

Dedicated to my loving mother,
Fannie Burroughs Height,
and her great expectations

by Maya Angelou
Mighty women have been with us and for us from the beginning of time. This is patently true or as a species we would have become extinct centuries before we learned how to use fire or store water. The Empresses and Queens of Western Literature have been portrayed as greedy, indulgent vixens, or tyrannical old hags who manipulated everyone and everything for their own selfish purposes, to reach their own selfish ends.
When Westerners wrote of women of other cultures, they showed them as cruel monarchs in ancient China or submissive Indian maidens in early America—or sexually insatiable slave girls of the American South.
Hale and Theresa Woodruff, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and their kind, somehow have been elevated beyond this mortal coil. In fact, when we read of them today, it is difficult to believe they ever really inhabited human form, they were so noble, so fierce, so long ago, and so fictional.
Now, one of the giants has presented herself as herself with some little explanation, but totally without apology.
In Open Wide the Freedom Gates, Dr. Dorothy Irene Height gives an account of her life, her struggles, her failures, and successes, which makes the reader stop, put the book down, and ponder. Could one African American woman, born in the early twentieth century, bound on all sides by the seeming immutable laws of racial and sexual discrimination escape being devastated? How could she go further and achieve such an impressive curriculum vitae?
This book is an historical and social resource of gargantuan proportions. The reader is introduced to the flesh and bones of people who had only been shining names on antiquitous pages. W. E. B. Du Bois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. and Jr., Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt are among them. In these pages, the legends live as real people, as influences on the life of Dorothy Irene Height. For all the clarity brought to those of olden days, Height has been most successful and courageous in unveiling her own character to the reader.
We see an African American woman in her early twenties asked by city officials to cope with and quell the Harlem riots of 1935. We see her commitment to a lifetime of advocacy for human rights. In this book we are able to follow her work for the desegregation of the armed forces and her work to gain access for all people to public accommodation.
Her dedication to Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women began in the late 1930s and continued into this century.
It is fortuitous that Open Wide the Freedom Gates is being offered here and now. Now when each of us is asking ourselves why am I here and what can I do to make this a safer and better world.
Mari Evans in her poem "I Am A Black Woman," describes Dorothy Irene Height and helps us to see how we can use the life Height has lived and is living to improve our own.
am a black woman
tall as a cypress
beyond all definition still
defying place
and time
and circumstance
on me and be

Chapter One
A "Little Old Lady"
I THINK OF my life as a unity of circles. Some are concentric, others overlap, but they all connect in some way. Sometimes the connections don't happen for years. But when they do, I marvel. As in a shimmering kaleidoscope, familiar patterns keep unfolding.
I was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 24, 1912, to Fannie Burroughs and James Height. My mother was over forty—I was, as some say, a "second life" baby—so for me, she was never really young. Perhaps that is why I have always enjoyed being around older people. Even as a young child, I found it interesting to talk with them, and they seemed to enjoy me. They took me seriously because I took life seriously. I was shy, and I loved to get off by myself to read. I never enjoyed doing nothing. I always liked a challenge. If it was jumping rope, I wanted to go on to Double Dutch. My older sisters explained me by saying I was an "old folks" child.
My grandparents died long before I was born, so I knew little about them, but I'm told that my father's family was part Native American, from North Carolina, and my mother's people were from Virginia. Both my parents had been twice widowed, and both had children from their previous marriages. I have known two of my father's children well—his daughters Golden and Minnie. And all my mother's children were very close to me. She had three by her first marriage: Willie, the oldest, Bennie, and Jessie. In her second marriage, there was Josephine. My sister Anthanette and I were her two Heights. Although we were actually half-sisters to the rest, I always felt we were "whole" sisters and brothers. It seemed to me that I came up in a large, loving family.
Josephine had to look after me when I was small because Momma worked long hours as a nurse in a Negro hospital in Richmond. A friend of Josephine's also had the care of a younger sister, and Josephine used to tell how we two little ones always seemed to be in the way of our older sisters' fun. So one day they took us to a nearby bridge with the idea of simply dropping us out of sight into the James River. When they got to the bridge, they saw a neighbor coming toward them and made a beeline back home. Josephine often said she was glad they thought better of it.
When I was four years old, we moved to Rankin, Pennsylvania, part of the Great Migration of southern Negroes to the North. At the time of my birth more than three-quarters of the black population of the United States was still providing cheap labor in rural areas of the South. Nearly fifty years after the Civil War, the ravages of slavery remained. But by 1916 that was beginning to change. Booming industry in places like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh drew great waves of Negroes—along with immigrants from Europe—to work in the mines, mills, and factories that promised a better life.
Though our family had no relatives to receive us up North, my parents, like thousands of others, were willing to risk everything for a new start. As a building and painting contractor, my father knew that Pennsylvania would be much richer territory for him. It was a different story for my mother. While many northern hospitals admitted Negro patients, none would employ a Negro nurse, so she had to make do with household work. But she made that transition with a grace that was a wonderful example to me. And eventually, through her own ingenuity as a household worker and the relationships she established with her employers, she was able to put her nursing skills to use taking care of private patients.
Rankin was a lucky choice. My parents had heard a great deal about the appalling living and working conditions that many were forced to endure in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Detroit. Housing often was the worst kind of tenement, with more than one family crowded into a unit. What were called "multiple dwellings" were really just plain slums, usually owned by wealthy absentee landlords.
Rankin was different. It was a small borough of Pittsburgh, nestled in the rolling hills along the Monongahela River. The low land along the river made a perfect place for steel mills, as well as for the railroad tracks that had come into the area in the 1850s. Most people counted on the mills for their livelihood, though many worked in the nearby coal mines. As World War I drove up the demand for steel, Rankin flourished.
The population was largely foreign-born. On almost any evening in our neighborhood, you could hear Italians singing on one side of the street and Croatians or Germans on the other side. The one prominent Jewish family owned the butcher shop. I have many happy memories of being together with people who were so different from one another. My date for the high school junior prom, for instance, was a Croatian boy who was the president of our class when I was the class secretary.
But with all the joyous celebrations that we shared, there was always the struggle to earn a living—and that meant certain economic tensions among all those groups searching for a better standard of living. There was a clear hierarchy. First in line and always on top economically were American-born whites, though they were a minority. Then came the foreign-born—the Italians, the Croatians, the Hungarians, the Polish, the Czechoslovakians, and the Yugoslavs who had fled war-ravaged Europe and comprised the bulk of the population. Negroes from the South were the last in line. Whites born in America looked down on white Europeans. And with the Great Migration, thousands of white ethnic families collided with the influx of southern Negro families.
During the First World War, when the steel industry desperately needed more laborers, the steel and mining companies would make deals with the railroads to offer southern Negroes free railway passage north. They called it "the Transportation." It wasn't exactly slave labor, but the wages were only marginally better than what the Negro workers could earn in the South. Even so, since the North was perceived as the region of opportunity, folks didn't think twice about moving, and our house became a meeting ground for many who came after us, especially those from Virginia and North Carolina. Many were willing to work twelve hours a day under terrible conditions. As a young child, I saw "last hired, first fired" in living reality.
I was eight years old when my aunt, Sally White, came up from Virginia to visit her son, Lincoln, who worked in a nearby mine. She was the oldest of my mother's three sisters, and she was the only one among the four who never learned to read or write, although she spoke perfect English. Unlike her sisters, she had little schooling because she had become a wage-earner as a very young woman. She was a great pastry cook, working her magic touch with flour, shortening, and sugar for wealthy white families in Prince William County, Virginia.
Lincoln sent his mother a train ticket to Pennsylvania, hoping that after a good visit he could convince her to come live with him. Aunt Sally had barely arrived when Western Union delivered a telegram to our house. She could not read it, so when I came home from school, she handed it to me. The telegram said that Lincoln had been lost in a cave-in at the mine where he worked. I didn't know what to do, but I knew this was shocking news. I also knew that Aunt Sally couldn't read it, and that she probably thought a child my age couldn't read it either. I folded the telegram and told Aunt Sally that I would give it to my mother to read to her.
When my mother came home, she sat Aunt Sally down and read the telegram to her. Through her tears, Aunt Sally let me know that she appreciated how I tried to protect her from the awful news. An instant bond developed between us. Aunt Sally told my mother lovingly that she had a "little old lady" in me.
It was a terrible moment when Aunt Sally had to go to the mine to identify Lincoln's body. It was so final. Everything they had planned together and waited for was suddenly gone. I learned then the risk and impact of the coal mines on families all around us. Families had such feelings of hopelessness after each cave-in, yet they went back to work, knowing they had to make a living. Many accidents never made the news, but word got around the community. Whole families were devastated by their losses. Years later no one ever had to convince me that John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers Union were fighting a crucial fight. Whenever I heard his voice staking his claim on behalf of the workers, I remembered Lincoln and that day with Aunt Sally.
McClintock Marshall was the largest steel mill in Rankin. Every day it belched out red-hot flames and smoke that floated like clouds above us and then rained down iron-ore dust over our backyard. My mother insisted on washing our curtains every other week just to get the soot out. No one had heard of antipollution laws then! When we studied anthracite, iron, or bituminous coal in school, it was very real to me.
The whistle of the steel mill seemed to control our lives. It blew at seven in the morning, at noon, at three, at seven in the evening, and at eleven at night. In good weather, we children would sit out on our back porch in the evening and play a great game. We counted the mill workers. The winner was the one who could count to the highest number before the last man on the evening shift came out of the mill. When the mills were flourishing, the numbers were so great that the men looked like ants, all moving in the same direction. As jobs began to disappear, we realized that the numbers were dwindling. And then there came a time when it was easy to count those who came through the gate. There were no bright flames gusting out of the stacks. The smoke diminished, the ore dust settled. It was the post-World War I depression.
My father was always self-employed. Highly skilled, he was a building contractor, a master at house painting, decorative painting, several kinds of refinishing, carpentry, and building, and he was much in demand. He was acclaimed for his stencil work on the walls of the Syrian Mosque as well as for his work on the less glamorous walls of the morgue in downtown Pittsburgh. He even had the contract to paint the yellow lane-divider lines down the middle of Rankin's streets. He often tested his paints on our porch, so I never knew what color it would be when I got home from school. For my father, it was not just a test but also an advertisement.
My father provided work for many young men coming up from the South, and as the depression deepened, more and more young men came to our house seeking employment. My father did what he could, but he had to turn many away. Men out of work often would stop me on my way home from school and say, "Please, tell your father that if he needs help, I can do anything he needs." I knew some of these young men and came to see how precious work is for people. I understood that what I had seen from the back porch was connected to what was happening on the front porch. People were desperate. As a woman in Harlem said to me later, "This was a time when a dollar was a dollar and Negroes didn't have any."
My father was also active in Republican politics. After all, those were the days when the Republicans were still the party of Abraham Lincoln. Our dining room table could tell many stories of decisions made, of candidates chosen or nixed. In truth, however, neither of the political parties offered much advancement for the Negro, for whom unemployment and lynching were realities of everyday life. On the local, state, and national levels, Negro Americans gained ground through the kind of self-help that had characterized our struggle since slavery—by creating our own organizations to meet our needs. My mother was very active in the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, founded in 1895. She took me to every state and national meeting. There I saw women working, organizing, teaching themselves. I heard a lot about uplifting the race. Years later I would have a better appreciation of how much women had done through those clubs to provide basic services that white people took for granted.
It was in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, when I was thirteen years old, that I saw and heard for the first time a Negro woman who was an elected official. Her name was Maude Coleman, and she was a member of the state legislature. Her address to the girls' group of the state federation kept me awake most of the night. The words haunted me, so I found a way to get them from Representative Coleman. To this day I go back to the poem she recited at the end of her speech:
To every man there openeth a high way and a low,
And every man decideth the way his soul shall go.
Some Souls climb the high way, others grope the low,
And in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift, to and fro.
To every man there openeth a high way and a low,
And every man decideth the way his soul shall go.
I went to these meetings because my mother wanted me to, although I didn't like the fact that many were held on holiday weekends. One Fourth of July, when all my playmates were getting ready to shoot their fireworks, I was packed off to a women's church meeting. I never admitted to my mother that the reason my eyes were so red that Saturday afternoon was because I had carried a Thunderbolt with me into the ladies' room and tried to set it off. I suppose it was fortunate for all that it simply backfired in my face and did not blow up the building. There was no water cold enough to stop the burning that stung my eyes all weekend. But most of the time I enjoyed whatever festivities the women of the Pennsylvania Federation of Colored Women's Clubs put on. Since those early days, I've never doubted my place in the sisterhood.
As a household worker, my mother earned three dollars a day plus carfare. The carfare was important because Rankin was almost an hour away from downtown Pittsburgh. I remember best a family named Johnston, for whom my mother worked over the longest period. My mother felt very close to Mrs. Johnston and her daughter Mary, but my feelings were decidedly mixed: I both liked and hated Mary Johnston. On the one hand, it seemed that during every important event in my life, my mother had to be at Mary's house, and that bothered me. On the other hand, Mary was about my age and size and had beautiful clothes, many of which I inherited. Once, when I won an impromptu speech contest, Mrs. Johnston sent me a beaver coat that Mary had outgrown. Beaver coats were very elegant, and everyone at school knew that only rich girls could have them. That was one of those moments when I loved Mary Johnston!
In 1974, when the Ladies' Home Journal


On Sale
Apr 28, 2009
Page Count
344 pages

Dorothy Height

About the Author

Dr. Dorothy Height has more than twenty honorary degrees. In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, she has received the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Freedom Medal and the Citizens Medal Award, which President Ronald Reagan awarded her in 1989. Now ninety-one, she continues to serve as chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Learn more about this author