- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Some folks ought to know by now not to mess with the "sistahs." Especially if the Queen of the Sistahood Oprah Winfrey is in the house.

I thought I had working a reception room down to a fine science, but Oprah showed me what it's all about, using her celebrity status to pick pockets during the "UnCommon Heights" tribute to civil rights maven Dorothy I. Height and poet Maya Angelou Wednesday night at the JW Marriott.

The tone of generosity and gratitude for our foremothers like Mary McLeod Bethune, who established the National Council of Negro Women, was set by Miss Angelou, who gave an emotional but economical acceptance speech when she received her UnCommon Heights award.

"Look. Look. Look at me now. Look how far I have come," she said breathlessly before breaking into a stanza of the old Negro spiritual.

Noting her meager beginnings as a mute rape victim in Arkansas, Miss Angelou attributed much of her professional and personal success to Mrs. Height, who welcomed her in those turbulent early days of her writing career and gave her the confidence to persevere.

Later, the sassy and classy Oprah spiced up Miss Angelou's words.

"I wouldn't be able to stand here in my Manolo Blahnik shoes if it weren't for people like Dr. Height who built bridges for me to cross over," said Oprah, who also mentioned her meager beginnings. This was her cue to remind the crowd of predominantly black well-wishers that no one else in the room could have succeeded without the likes of Mrs. Height and other civil rights stalwarts.

"I know we've got $750,000 in this room because you all are probably wearing $750,000 of clothes," she said.

It may have been fight promoter Don King who electrified the crowd, but it was Oprah who rallied them to donate more than $5 million to retire the debt on the 633 Pennsylvania Ave. NW headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women as a 90th birthday present to "Dr. Dorothy."

What better gift for Mrs. Height, whose birthday is Sunday, than to give her something that will help her sleep better at night?

"Let's click our heels and pay the bills [to make Mrs. Height] smile like Dorothy in 'The Wizard of Oz,'" said Mr. King, who put up $100,000 of his own money for the cause.

Never to be outdone, Oprah sashayed to the stage in a flowing off-the-shoulder, off-white chiffon dress draped in "bling-de-bling" diamonds and said, "I love you, Brother King, but I came here prepared to give two-point-five."

That's $2.5 million.

That's when folks raised the rafters.

"Don King started something, but he should have known better than to challenge a room full of sisters especially when there's one in the room who has as much money as Oprah," said Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat.

Oprah took over the room as if it were her TV talk show. She commandeered the program already running hours late and went table to table with a hand-held microphone to shamelessly goad dinner guests to dig deep.

"We're only here for one reason to raise money and when we get $5 million, you all can all go home, I promise," she said, interupting her co-host, actor Danny Glover, who made several unsuccessful attempts to return the program to its scheduled speakers.

The stellar crowd at the gala for Mrs. Height was a walking and talking version of "Who's Who in Black America" Coretta Scott King, C. Delores Tucker, Marian Wright Edelman, the Rev. Al Sharpton, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Hugh Price, C. Payne Lucas, Kweisi Mfume, Anthony A. Williams, Marion Barry, Cora Masters Barry, Rod Paige, Susan Taylor.

A standing ovation was given to Sen. Hillary Rodam Clinton, who represented the nation's living first ladies as honorary co-chairwomen of the dinner.

Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, prompted chuckles when she said Mrs. Height had supported many first ladies. "I was talking to Eleanor Roosevelt before I came over here," Mrs. Clinton said. "Dorothy actually knew Eleanor, so Eleanor wanted me to tell you that Dorothy, 'You're still doing good, girl.'"

Shortly after 11 p.m., the $5 million goal was met, and Mrs. Height spoke for herself. She said she discovered just last month that the building housing the National Council of Negro Women had once been the Center Slave Market and a stop along the Underground Railroad.

"That building is ours, and tonight we are reclaiming it," said Mrs. Height, dressed in a regal purple sequined gown and her signature hat.

She said being able to burn the mortgage would not only give her a good night's sleep but also more "steam" to continue the council's mission, which includes purchasing the only building owned by blacks along Pennsylvania Avenue.

After midnight, Mr. Glover had chastised "the brothas" for letting "the sistahs" show them up, and Oprah was still standing tall for the sistahood on those strappy Manolo Blahniks.

Proving once again, don't come half-stepping to the sistahs because we're about taking care of business.

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