As someone who loves history, living in Washington, DC has certainly afforded me the chance to meet an incredible array of historical figures over the years. From presidents to politicians to pundits, I constantly marvel at the paths I cross in our nation’s capitol. Such was the case for me a few years back when I had the amazing opportunity to meet Dr. Dorothy Height.
I had the great fortune of meeting the “Queen” of the civil rights movement many years ago through my work as a board member of the nonprofit organization known as Operation Hope. The work notwithstanding, its visionary and inspirational leader, John Bryant, is the primary reason I enjoy serving. Being around John makes you want to be a better person.
Through Operation Hope and its events, John introduced me to the likes of Andrew Young, Jack Kemp, and a wonderful woman with a beautiful collection of hats named Dorothy Height. I remember having a fairly cursory knowledge of Dr. Height’s role in the civil rights movement but John put it into perspective for me - “You realize that MLK’s speech wouldn’t have happened if not for the woman whose hand you just shook.”
No I didn’t.
So John urged me to learn more. ”You will be amazed that one person could do so much,” he promised and that promise didn’t disappoint. I began reading all the incredible stories that would come to weave her legend. Being admitted to college but being denied entrance upon arrival. Getting invited to Hyde Park by Eleanor Roosevelt. Urging the March on Washington organizers to allow MLK to speak because she knew how well he connected with young people. Leading the National Council of Negro Women. Her contributions to history and to the struggle for equality go on and on.
After my crash course in all things Height, I got a fortuitous email from John asking if I might be able to provide her with a new desktop computer given my day job working for a technology company. In doing so, John recounted a conversation with Dr. Height who had asked her, “When am I going to join the iPod and Internet generation? I want to do it all.” I couldn’t help but smile at the youthful exuberance of someone 95 years old.
I jumped at the chance and was flattered John asked me to help. What he didn’t realize however was that my altruism had an ulterior motive - I wanted to visit with Dorothy Height. And on a cold December night in 2007, I got to do so. I arrived at her apartment in southwest Washington and was greeted by her wonderful caregiver who informed me that Dr. Height was not yet home. ”She’s had meetings all day,” she said. Working past 7:00pm at 95? ”Yup, that’s Dr. Height, darling.”
For the better part of the next 30 minutes, I replaced her ancient, and I mean ancient, computer (it may, in fact, have been the first computer ever built). I finished quickly so I could spend some time looking at the amazing pieces of history scattered throughout her home.
There was a picture with Martin Luther King. Another with Lyndon Johnson. Yet another with Thurgood Marshall. I remember thinking that my photo with former Congressman John Kasich didn’t quite measure up. On an opposite wall were commissions and proclamations from virtually every President dating back to John Kennedy and beautiful portraits of friends and family. As I got lost in the decades of the American experience on display there, the door opened and Dr. Height finally arrived.
She thanked me for coming and for replacing her computer. ”Such a nice-looking young man,” she said as she extended her hand (clearly her vision was beginning to go at this time). Dr. Height then quickly moved to examine her new workstation, grabbed the mouse and demanded to know, “Is this connected to the Internet? I need to check my email.” Awesome.
After I provided a quick tutorial, Dr. Height asked what she could do in return for the gesture. I simply asked if she would spend a few moments telling me about MLK. She happily obliged and I couldn’t believe I was getting treated to a firsthand account from a person who spent her life on the frontline of our history. It was an incredible evening to be sure.
Always one to think of others, Dr. Height made me promise to make sure her old computer would not go to waste. ”There are plenty of school children who don’t have computers in Washington,” she implored. I smiled and agreed, not having the heart to tell her that her old computer had little more value than a paper weight. With that, I left with an incredible life moment.
As I did, Dr. Height said, “I can’t thank you enough.” As the nation now begins to mourn her passing, I’m not sure there is anything better we can say in return.
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