- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015


Many a believer holds to the biblical truth that a woman covers her head to show subordination to man. If Dorothy Irene Height were alive today, I’d ask her her thoughts.

For sure, though, I’ve already begged her pardon for using the words “subordination to man” and her name in the same paragraph.

Height, who died in the spring of 2010 at the age of 98, was a lady known for her unyielding commitment to women and family life, her strong hand and voice for civil and human rights. She was a teller of history, fortune and ancestry, and for decades she was the helm of the National Council of Negro Women Inc. (NCNW). She pushed for action on many fronts, including education, jobs, health care and self-reliance. She was the woman warrior who stood among the men of the civil rights movement.

She wore many hats — literally.

Many of those hats are now the focus of a partnership between NCNW, the Dorothy I. Height Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, and those hats are scheduled for a tour and exhibit. Both events are part of NCNW’s renewed efforts to strengthen bridges with young people.

That some of Height’s hats are being curated as part of NCNW’s value-added initiative should prove inspirational.

There’s voting rights, an issue captured in the red-white-and blue hat that Height wore to Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic Party nomination.

There’s maintaining community, which is captured in her red hats, including a gorgeous rhinestone-crusted one that reflects Height’s sister-woman ties to the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which she served as president from 1947-56.

There are her halos, which she loved as evening wear. She wore a halo as a guest of The Washington Times for the 2008 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Oh, how the cameras captured her dignity, ever-present smile and ruby-shaded cheeks — and that mint-colored halo.

All in all, Height had a collection of 250 or so hats, church hats and other hats for all occasions, Paulette Norvel Lewis explained to me in an interview.

“Her halos were her favorite,” said Ms. Lewis, NCNW’s national program committee chair. “I think hats are a very important part of history for all women, a sign of modesty, a sign of being fully dressed. Hats are a sign of particular meaning with African-American church women.

And not merely on Easter Sunday, when Christian girls and women traditionally donned a bonnet or hat, and gloves. For many female blacks who did domestic work in other people’s homes, Sundays were and remain an opportunity to present personal style, personality and dignity in a hat.

“Hats are a cross-spiritual, cross-ethnic expression,” Ms. Lewis said, “and a mixture of faith and fashion.”

Dr. Height wore bright, kelly green hats for St. Patrick’s Day. She had wide-brims, and playful hats.”

A pictorial of a hatted Height would include a black-and-white photo of her as a tyke with her mom, Fannie Burroughs Height, both looking stylish in their hats.

Another black-and-white picture shows Height and her NCNW predecessor, Mary McLeod Bethune, in hats, — with Height in a pillbox style similar to the trend in the 1950s and 1960s.

There’s a photo of her wearing a white fur hat in 1960, when she presented former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt with the Mary McLeod Bethune Human Rights Award in New York.

She also had on a hat in 2003, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — I must add, a year before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was so honored.

Said President George W. Bush during her presentation: “She’s a woman of enormous accomplishment. She’s a friend of first ladies like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’s known every president since Dwight David Eisenhower. She’s told every president what she thinks since Dwight David Eisenhower. Truth of the matter is, she was the giant of the civil rights movement.”

One of Height’s favorite milliners is Vanilla Beane, whose Bene Millinery and Bridal Shop on Third Street in Northwest D.C. remains popular. She also received hats as gifts, as you might imagine, and a photo captures the pure joy on her face at a birthday party, surrounded by children, a hatbox on her lap and the pale pink-and-white wide-brimmed hat where it belonged — on her head.

Dr. Height strongly held principles and values, and her love of her hats were a reflection,” Ms. Lewis said.

Dorothy Irene Height and her remarkable collection of hats also pay homage to her love of purples as deep as the deepest violets and as pale as and rich as lavenders.

A woman and her hats, a woman who wore the color purple like royalty.

Said President Obama of her signature attire in his eulogy of Height: “And we loved those hats that she wore like a crown — regal.”

Indeed. And the fact they she wore them well despite the bigotry, despite the politics and despite the mean streets of America speaks volumes.

Fortunately, thanks to NCNW, the Height Foundation and the Smithsonian, a generation of young people will get to know Height, her values and her hats.

The woman’s hats reflect something Fannie Height said: “No matter what happens, you have to hold yourself together.”

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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