- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

Six thirty-three Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. It's the only black-owned building on what many call America's main street, a sprint away from the U.S. Capitol and the White House. It stands as a symbol of the distance traveled by African Americans, many of whom trace their ancestry to slaves shipped to this country in chains, living and dying in cotton fields, at the ends of whips, or dangling from the branches of trees dripping with blood. The building also serves as testimony to the brilliance and tenacity of black women, particularly Dorothy Irene Height, and others who comprised the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

Though founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it's Ms. Height's name that is most associated with the organization. President from 1957 until 1997, Ms. Height saw the group through its most expansive development including the creation of social programs in parts of the rural South and various African countries. Frequently, she was the only woman seated at a table of men involved in planning major events during the Southern civil rights movement, including the historic March on Washington. Later, she became the black voice in the early days of the feminist movement, urging women of color to join hands but cautioning them against destroying their own men.

Remembering Mrs. Bethune's dream of wanting a visible presence in the nation's capital and aided by author Maya Angelou, philanthropist Camille Cosby and then-Essence magazine Editor in Chief Susan Taylor, Ms. Height launched in 1994 an ambitious Fund for the Future Campaign. She wanted to raise $30 million to support the National Centers for African American Women, the Dorothy I. Height Leadership Institute, and to purchase a national headquarters (the group had been renting a suite of offices on G Street N.W.) and seed an endowment. One year later, in 1995, NCNW purchased the building at 633 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. It had been appraised at $22 million. The group bought it for $8 million a steal by anyone's interpretation.

Ms. Height was 82 years old and still the group's president and chief executive officer when she launched that campaign. Today, she turns 88. (Happy birthday.) The grande dame of the African-American women, civil rights and human rights movements is president emeritus of NCNW. She still reports to work nearly every day, wearing her signature hat, gloves and pearls, looking every bit the epitome of those proper colored ladies whose clubs helped support poor families, funded schools and generally cared actively for the welfare of their communities, using the nickels, dimes and dollars collected from bake sales and other efforts.

Some would think Ms. Height might leave well enough alone; be happy that she has achieved many of the goals she set out to accomplish. She might be satisfied that she set the NCNW on the big street and walk on home to her front porch. But in the tradition of Mrs. Bethune, Fannie Lou Hammer, Ella Baker and hundreds of other African-American women, Ms. Height seems to be singing, "I ain't no ways tired."

She and NCNW's new president and chief operating officer, Jane Smith, want to burn the mortgage for the Pennsylvania Avenue building. They say they pay slightly over $72,000 each month and that while the bank may not be getting rich off interest payments, it's sure accumulating a nice nest. So playing on the address they have launched another campaign. Donors may make their contributions as $6.33, $63.30, $633, $6,330. Individuals and organizations may offer one-time donations, or they may pledge monthly allotments. "We want everybody to find a way to participate," says Ms. Smith, who promises that donors will receive a thank-you letter and that their contributions are tax-exempt. Further, persons who choose to join in the campaign will also have their names entered into a scroll that will be placed in the lobby of the grand building just next to the ashes from the burned mortgage. Once the facility is completely paid for, there are plans to rename it after Ms. Height.

The campaign is modest. The goal indisputably worthy, especially when weighed against the former president's six decades of activism, self-sacrifice and community service. Ms. Height is remarkable not simply because of her stamina, although younger women readily admit they are unable to keep pace. What demands our salute to Dorothy I. Height is her faith. For all these years and even on this day, she still believes in the good that lies in every person, and the potential of hard, collective work to change darkness into light.

Asking for help in burning the NCNW's mortgage is a small request from someone who has presented African Americans and all of America with a wonderful gift of a tireless spirit. We have until Sept. 12 to say, "Thank you, job well-done."

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