Tuesday, August 22, 2000

Quiet gifts of a woman with power

        Dorothy Height is working on a real estate deal. She's trying to buy some property on Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. She is 88 years old and needs $8 million. This is not your average woman.

        Right now, Dr. Height is on a plane. I'm not sure where, but I know she is wearing a hat. I know when she arrives, people will scurry around her, trying to please. Right now it would please her to raise enough money to buy the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. She wants to retire the mortgage on the historic building where Lincoln had his picture taken for the $5 bill and where the NCNW has been making $70,000 a month mortgage payments the past five years.

        My friend Joe O'Flynn, a film and video producer, is trying to capture her for a documentary. He is struggling. “She is just quietly powerful,” he says. “When she enters a room, she owns it. But it's hard to say why.”

        She doesn't make much noise, unless you count marching through Times Square in 1936 shouting, “Stop the lynchings.”

Advice to presidents
               Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has at one time or another called her for advice. She has been working on this world for a very long time, yet she's not exactly a household word.

        Joe says he wonders whether many of the 200,000 people who came here last weekend for the Black Family Reunion know who got them here. A celebration “dedicated to the history, tradition and culture of black families,” Dr. Height said 14 years ago when she came up with the idea and rallied the likes of tennis star Arthur Ashe and Roots author Alex Haley to join her.

        Very determined. Very well-connected.

        She sat on stage in 1963 while the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech.” She'd hoped to speak at the rally but was overruled.

        The only female voice heard at the march, she would say later, was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

        Rep. John Lewis, head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s, told a reporter that “the leadership of the civil rights movement was very chauvinistic.”

        So, Dr. Height turned to women, establishing Wednesdays in Mississippi to encourage northern and southern white and black women to work together. The interracial group worked on voter registration and schools.

        On the National Board of the YWCA for many years, Dr. Height founded the Y's Center for Racial Justice. Then in 1957, she took over as head of the NCNW. She remains its chair.

Family values
               Joe's documentary for Procter & Gamble's Redna Productions brought him downtown with director Alphonzo Wesson for the Black Family Reunion to shoot background footage. Dr. Height wasn't here.

        The Black Family Reunion project is up and running all over the country — a national series of festivals in which families can connect, listen to music, eat. They can hear speeches about family values and health. Some cities have job-training information, others have free blood-pressure screenings.

        A very big success.

        So the authentically powerful Dr. Height is on a plane somewhere. Moving on. Quietly.

        E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call (513) 768-8393.

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