Dorothy Height to Receive 6th Annual Frederick Douglass Award July 17

July 9, 2001

Civil Rights Pioneer Dorothy Height to Receive Sixth Annual USM Regents' Frederick Douglass Award July 17

University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr. announced today that Dorothy Irene Height, chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in Washington, D.C., and an internationally recognized leader of the civil rights movement, will receive the University System of Maryland Board of Regents' annual Frederick Douglass Award during a special ceremony on Tuesday, July 17 at 11 a.m. in Westminster Hall, 519 W Fayette St., adjacent to the University of Maryland School of Law.

Speakers at the event will include Leronia A. Josey, member of the USM Board of Regents; Thelma T. Daley, past national president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority; and USM Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg. Gov. Parris N. Glendening will deliver greetings from the state, and Chairman Chapman will present the award to Dr. Height. Frederick Douglass IV, professor at Morgan State University and a direct descendent of Douglass, will provide a dramatic reading from the latter's work. Music will be provided by the UMBC Gospel Choir from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. David J. Ramsay, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, will welcome the audience.

"Dr. Height provided leadership to the civil rights movement before it was even recognized as such," Chapman said. "She was there when the Depression bore down hard on working-class African-Americans, she was there when Brown v. Board of Education gave us new hope, and she was there when the movement broadened in the 1960s and '70s to speak to all Americans suffering from oppression. She achieved much in her life, and we wish to thank her for her hard work, diligence, and endurance - indeed, she is still doing great things today after half a century in the movement. She is a worthy inheritor of the legacy of Maryland's own Frederick Douglass."     

Dr. Height was born in Richmond, Va. in 1912, but grew up near Pittsburgh in a household where volunteerism prevailed. In those days, blacks from the southern states were migrating north to jobs in the steel mills. Height's mother and father, a nurse and building contractor respectively, helped these families settle in, thus instilling in her a sense of responsibility and integrity.

Dr. Height earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in educational psychology from New York University in four years and graduated in 1933 - the height of the Depression. She then turned her attention to social work in New York City, later working for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). During those years, she also was active in community service and religion, and eventually became one of the first leaders of the United Christian Youth Movement.

From her position in the church and at the YWCA in Harlem, she spanned gaps between the city's impoverished ethnic groups and the government, spotlighting the plight of unemployed domestic workers for national figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Langston Hughes.

Dr. Height's successes did not escape notice by the leadership of the NCNW. In 1937, she was approached to conduct committee work for the organization, an affiliation of civic, education, labor, community, church, and professional institutions headquartered in Washington. By 1957, she was its president. Under the guidance of educator and NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune, she organized voter registration drives in the South, testified repeatedly before Congress on social issues, and worked tirelessly on the more mundane tasks of the civil rights movement, such as jobs programs and food drives. She became an international leader in the burgeoning field of humanitarianism, working closely with Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and a host of other legendary leaders.

In 1989, President Reagan acknowledged her achievements by presenting her with the Citizens Medal Award. In 1993, the NAACP awarded her its prestigious Spingarn Medal. That was followed by the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, bestowed by President Clinton in 1994. Last August, a feature story on Dr. Height in the Cincinnati Enquirer declared that every president since Eisenhower has called on her for advice. In their book, The African American Century, Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. cited her as one of the 100 most influential African-Americans of the 20th century.

Dorothy Height, who has been called the "grande dame" of the civil rights movement, has received numerous accolades throughout her career, including more than 20 honorary degrees from institutions such as Harvard University, Tuskegee Institute, Princeton University, and Morehouse College. She has served in the leadership of dozens of organizations devoted to social change, most notably as president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority from 1947 to 1956. In 1986 she founded and organized the Black Family Reunion Celebration, a national coming together of African-American families designed to promote historic strengths and traditional values.

The Frederick Douglass Award was established in 1995 by the USM Board of Regents to honor individuals "who have displayed an extraordinary and active commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, justice, and opportunity exemplified in the life of Frederick Douglass." Previous recipients include the Honorable Parren J. Mitchell, a member of Congress for the 7th District of Maryland (1996); Benjamin Quarles, scholar at Morgan State University (1997, posthumously); Samuel Lacy Jr., sports writer for the Baltimore Afro-American (1998); the Hon. Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1999); and Beatrice "Bea" Gaddy, advocate for the poor and homeless and a member of the Baltimore City Council (2000).

Statesman, publisher and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the leading spokesman of American blacks in the 1800s. Born a slave in 1817 in Tuckahoe, MD, he devoted his life to the abolition of slavery and the fight for black rights. Douglass's name at birth was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but he changed it when he fled from his master in Baltimore in 1838. He ended up in New Bedford, Mass., where he attempted to ply his trade as a ship caulker, but settled for collecting garbage and digging cellars. In 1841, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Antislavery Society, Douglass delivered a lecture on freedom that so impressed the society that it hired him to talk publicly about his experiences as a slave. He then began a series of protests against segregation, and published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845.

Out of fear that his identity as an escaped slave would be discovered upon publication of the Narrative, Douglass fled to England. There he spoke out against slavery and was given funds by friends to buy his freedom. He returned to the U.S. in 1847, founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Rochester, NY, and took up the cause of economic justice for freed blacks. He accused American businessmen, including some who were abolitionists, of hiring white immigrants over blacks. He also fought successfully against segregated schools in Rochester.

Douglass's home was a station on the underground railroad, which helped runaway slaves reach freedom. When the Civil War began in 1861, Douglass helped recruit blacks for the Union Army. He discussed the immorality of slavery with President Abraham Lincoln on several occasions. Finally, he wrote two expanded versions of his autobiography - My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. He died in 1895.


Chris Hart
Phone: 301/445-2739