Friday, April 30, 2010
Remembering Dr. Dorothy Height
One of the things I learned being raised by and among church-going black folks is that often when you don’t know where to start, the best thing to say is “I thank the Lord for being here.” Yes, indeed, I thank the Lord for being here is the very best way to begin my reflections on the experience of the past two days, when I was privileged to attend the celebrations of the life of Dr. Dorothy Irene Height. I thank the Lord for the unshakeable impulse to be in the number, present bodily with those who journeyed to Washington, D.C. to celebrate a woman who spent the overwhelming majority of her 98 years striving for justice, from the anti-lynching campaigns of the 1930s to the civil rights and women’s rights struggles. I thank the Lord for the resources of time and money, strength and energy, to make this pilgrimage. I thank the Lord for grace and favor embodied in friends and strangers who provided lodging, entrance, seats, and tickets.
I arrived in Washington by train at about 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 2010, with the plan to meet a relatively new friend who would provide both company and transportation for the memorial events. As soon as I got into the car, she decided that our day should begin with a trip to 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, the headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women, the site where Dr. Height had given so much of her labor. Although the building was closed, we arrived just at the time when Dr. Height's remains were to be transported from NCNW, where she had been honored the night before.
From the NCNW building, we journeyed to Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium where the members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. conducted the Omega Omega service, the final rite of passage to which every Delta is entitled, for Dr. Height. Dr. Height had served our sorority as the 10th National President from 1947-1956, and had in that period shepherded the organization into greater public service and institutional stability. Dorothy Height was herself an institution in Delta, dearly beloved and sought after, the very sight of her at a national convention or regional conference an important event.
Her service began promptly at 2 o’clock, under the leadership of the 24th National President, Dr. Cynthia Butler-McIntyre, with the eulogy being offered by the 16th National President, Dr. Thelma Daley. Other Past National Presidents offered reflections. Bishop Vashti Murphy MacKenzie, Delta’s National Chaplain, led the prayers.
There were many highlights of the service and many memorable moments. Particularly moving was the letter of tribute sent by the 11th National President, Dorothy Penman Harrison, who had been the National Treasurer when Dr. Height was President. She told the story of the purchase of Delta’s first headquarters building, including a humorous observation about the amazement of the realtor when three black women showed up to view the property and were able to write the deposit check for $1000 on the spot. Each speaker offered her own tribute to the dignity, determination, commitment, and fortitude of Dr. Height. Several commented on her indomitable spirit and boundless energy. All agreed that it was impossible to tell her no. The 19th National President Dr. Yvonne Kennedy offered one of the many quotable statements: “All Deltas are smart. Dorothy Height was brilliant.” Interspersed in the service was the musical offering of a quartet from the Philadelphia Alumnae Chapter, three of whom I am proud to say are my line sisters. Their harmonies, like the service itself and the woman it honored, were exquisite. Especially moving and fitting was the singing of “Grateful” as the violets were placed next to a portrait of Dr. Height by former Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. Following the singing of the Delta Prayer, the service concluded with the combination of solemnity and buoyancy as the pallbearers removed Dorothy Height’s remains and the rest of us felt the inspiration and joy of knowing the impact that her life had made on Delta and on us all.