In several African-American history books, particularly biographical dictionaries, Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Dorothy Height are listed almost inseparably. They were equally close together during their highly productive lifetimes. Height, who died at 98 in 2010, first met Hedgeman when she replaced her as the membership secretary of the Harlem YWCA in 1927. Meanwhile, Hedgeman, born in Iowa in 1899, became the YWCA’s executive director at several urban branches.
By 1937, Height was the assistant director of the Harlem YWCA and came to the attention of Mary McLeod Bethune, who recognized her poise and deportment while escorting Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting of the National Council of Negro Women, of which Bethune was the founder and the president.
“Height answered Bethune’s call for help and joined Bethune in her quest for women’s right to full and equal employment, pay and education,” wrote Darlene Clark Hine in “Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia.”
While Height was conducting affairs at the Y, Hedgeman was a consultant on racial problems for the commissioner of New York. In 1943, she was appointed executive director of the National Council for a Permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. Three years later, she was the assistant dean of women at Howard University. During this period, Height had become the director of the Center for Racial Justice. From 1952 to 1955, she served as consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense Advisory Committee on Women, and like Hedgeman, she had a foot in the academic arena as a visiting professor at the Delhi School of Social Work in Delhi, India.
The same year Black America was celebrating the Brown v. the Board of Education decision in 1954, Hedgeman was jubilant to become the first female member of New York Mayor Robert Wagner’s cabinet. Among her many duties was acting as the civic liaison to Harlem and a representative for the mayor at a number of events when the mayor was unable to attend. When the great jazz musician Charlie Parker died in 1955, Hedgeman was at the funeral on behalf of the mayor.
Throughout the 1950s, Hedgeman’s and Height’s lives inevitably crossed during the conferences and conventions held by the National Urban League and the National Association of Negro Women, where Hedgeman was a prominent member, or the National Council of Negro Women, of which Height became the president in 1957.
A deluge of honors arrived for both women by the 1960s and 1970s. Both were inextricably involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and Height was often considered the only woman in the so-called “Big Six” of Black leadership. In 1978, Hedgeman was saluted by the National Conference of Christian and Jews as one of the “50 Extraordinary Women of Achievement in New York City.” Height received honorary degrees from Harvard University, Tuskegee University and Coppin State College in Baltimore, Md. In 1971, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Award of the National Conference on Social Welfare. Despite their numerous activities and obligations, Hedgeman and Height were prolific speakers and writers. Among Hedgeman’s books are “The Trumpet Sounds” (1964) and “The Gift of Chaos” (1977). Height authored her memoir “Open Wide the Freedom Gates” in 2003.
One of the last honors Hedgeman received occurred in 1983, when she was the recipient of the Pioneer Woman Award by the New York State Conference on Midlife and Older Women. The award came close to summarizing her remarkable life. On Jan. 17, 1990, she died in Harlem Hospital at 90. For many years, she was one of Harlem’s most distinguished residents.
Height died in a hospital in Washington, D.C., and there were two funeral services for her—one in Harlem and the other at the National Cathedral in D.C., which was attended by a long roster of dignitaries, including President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary. Clinton had presented Height with the Presidential Medal of Freedom when she was 92. It was among her most cherished awards.
- Find out more: The lives of Anna Arnold Hedgeman and Dorothy Height intersected in a number of interesting ways, particularly through the various organizations in which they led or were members. Seek out a few of them and note their common traits and goals.
- Discussion: Both women were pioneers in many respects. Discuss the ways in which they broke barriers of race and gender. Note also the international implications of their lives and achievements.
- Place in context: Both women experienced similar events and history during their lifetimes. During which period do you feel they made their most significant accomplishments and why?
This week in Black History:
- Nov. 10, 1963: Malcolm X delivers his famous “Message to Grass Roots” at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. This is the last major speech he will give as a member of the Nation of Islam.
- Nov. 11, 1954: J. Rosamond Johnson, brother of James Weldon Johnson, dies. He wrote the music for many of the songs composed by him and his brother, including “Lift Every Voice,” which became the Black National anthem.
- Nov. 12, 1977: Earnest “Dutch” Morial is elected the first African-American mayor of New Orleans.