Dorothy Height Congressional Gold Medal


Dorothy Height and Eleanor Roosevelt


Civil rights icon Dr. Dorothy Irene Height (1912-2010) was known for her courage, intelligence, leadership, standing straight—and hats. The 42 hats in the exhibition, organized by the MFA, have been borrowed from The Dorothy I. Height Education Foundation, Inc. in Washington, D.C.   Dorothy Height’s Hats opens Saturday, April 29, and continues through Sunday, July 23, in the second-floor gallery. Media Partners are the Tampa Bay Times and WUSF. The Book Club @ the MFA, presented by Keep St. Pete Lit, will discuss her memoir Open Wide the Freedom Gates on Thursday, May 11, at 6:30 p.m.

These examples reveal Dr. Height’s flair for fashion. She was almost never seen in public without a hat, and this exhibition spotlights many of her favorites. She formed a close friendship with African American milliner Vanilla Bean in Washington, D.C., who designed many hats for her appearances and speeches. In fact, when Dr. Height called with a request, her friend was known to drop everything and to select or create a hat especially for her.  Dr. Height favored African American hat-makers—and no wonder. They have been some of America’s most talented, carrying on the rich tradition of women’s hats in African American culture. Over the years, African American women have worn their finest hats to church on Sunday, as well as to social events, meetings, and special occasions.

One hat in the exhibition is by Harriet Rosebud, a noted milliner who grew up in St. Petersburg. She wore others by such fashion luminaries as Oscar de la Renta, Mr. John, Lisa Rene, Luke Song, and Ruth Kropveld, who established Chapeau Creations.  A number are full of history. She wore a vintage white mink hat at a meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1938; a white, with red, white, and blue brim, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention that nominated President Barack Obama; and an aqua blue, with feather flowers, when she received the 2004 Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush. President Bill Clinton had previously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994. These are the country’s highest civilian honors.

Recognition—and struggle—came early. She was the only African American contestant in a national oratory contest, sponsored by the Elks, won first place, and received a full college scholarship. She was admitted to Barnard College, but upon arrival, was told by a dean that the quota of two African American students a year had already been met. Discouraged, but not defeated, Dr. Height promptly took her Barnard acceptance letter to New York University where she later earned both her BA and MA. She pursued further postgraduate study at Columbia University.

During the course of her life, she received 36 honorary doctorates. In 2004, Barnard College commemorated the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, which moved our public schools toward integration. On this occasion, the college named her an honorary alumna, 75 years after turning her away.  Dr. Height was President of the National Council of Negro Women for 40 years and was one of the leaders in the early civil rights movement. She was usually the only woman on stage. In 1963, she sat near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he made his “I Have a Dream Speech,” but was not invited to speak to the crowd. She later became part of the struggle for women’s rights, joining forces with Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, and others. She was also active in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority throughout her life and served as national President from 1947-1956.  She was given a place of prominence at the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, who called her “the godmother of the civil rights movement and a hero to so many Americans.”  Dr. Dorothy Height—and her hats—have played a momentous role in American history.


The MFA at 255 Beach Drive N.E. has a world-class collection, with works by Monet, Morisot, Rodin, O’Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, and many other great artists. Also displayed are ancient Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Asian, African, pre-Columbian, and Native American art. Selections from the photography collection, one of the largest and finest in the Southeast, are now on view in a gallery dedicated to the medium. Kristen A. Shepherd is the Executive Director.  Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, until 8 p.m. on Thursday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.