Places that Matter

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464 W 152nd Street, Harlem

Civil Rights activist Dorothy Height's long-time residence
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The apartment building where civil rights activist Dorothy Irene Height (March 24, 1912 Virginia - April 20, 2010 Washington D.C.) lived from 1944 to 1974 is in the historic district of Sugar Hill. Height campaigned for equality both for women and African Americans - battles that were often previously fought in separate arenas.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Height was the leading woman helping Martin Luther King, Jr. and other activists orchestrate the civil rights movement. In 1957, she became President of the National Council of Negro Women. Fighting for women's rights on issues such as equal pay and education, Height led the organization until 1997. She developed programs such as "pig banks" to help poor rural families raise their own livestock, and "Wednesdays in Mississippi," in which black and white women from the north traveled to Mississippi to meet with their southern counterparts in an effort to ease racial tensions and bridge differences. In 1994, she was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and with the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. [1]
In her book Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir, Height refers to Sugar Hill as “Harlem’s most prestigious neighborhood.” Being part of two historically marginalized groups (African American and female), Dorothy took her public persona seriously. She chose an architecturally distinguished neighborhood as part of her embrace of the politics of respectability.
The politics of respectability included "reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform." Respectability was part of "uplift politics," and had two audiences: African Americans, who were encouraged to be respectable, and white people, who needed to be shown that African Americans could be respectable.
Respectability became an issue at the juncture of public and private. It thus became increasingly important as both black and white women entered public spaces. The politics of respectability undermined the rigidly scientific nature of racial categories, but generally tended to reinforce status distinctions within the African American community. These distinctions were about class, but they were defined primarily in behavioral, not economic, terms. By linking worthiness for respect to sexual propriety, behavioral decorum, and neatness, respectability served a gatekeeping function, establishing a behavioral "entrance fee," to the right to respect and the right to full citizenship. [2]
As was the case with many other African American women, Height chose to symbolize and even embody the politics of respectability so as to further the cause of black equality. She developed a distinctive style, never downplaying her femininity in public life: she wore feminine suits in lush colors and glorious hats, as well a deep air of dignity. She used her presence and attire as a counter-argument to society’s perception that she was not worthy of respect.
In order to understand the form and use of Dorothy Height’s house, it is necessary to understand the house’s setting in the historic district of Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill. The use of revival style determined the visual character of the neighborhood, and the shift from upper and middle-class white residents to the first African American residents went hand in hand with a change in cultural significance of the built environment.
According to the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Hamilton Heights/Sugar Hill Historic District designation report (2000), the area was developed between with mid-1880s and WWI. The initial target demographics were middle and upper middle-class white residents. Situated west of Harlem, the district is known for two residential building types: the row-house and the apartment house.The report notes, “a cable car railway built along Amsterdam Avenue in the late 1880s spurred growth in the area - first, with single-family houses, followed by longer rows of speculatively-built residences.”
During the 1920s ,the area became known as Sugar Hill. Visible from flatlands of central Harlem, where most tenants occupied older tenements and crowded houses, these recently constructed apartment houses represented a world of domestic comfort and personal success. Many affluent and influential black professionals were attracted to the area. However, not everything was sweet in Sugar Hill: the high rents made the apartments unaffordable for occupants with low-paying jobs, which lead to the subdivision of row houses into smaller spaces and sometimes overcrowded apartments.
Dorothy Height lived in the district from 1944 until 1974, in a large apartment building on W. 152nd Street. The five-story plus basement Colonial Revival building was designed by architect Edmund Ellis and was constructed in 1915. This and similar buildings were designed with middle-class renters in mind. Most were walk-up structures (5 to 6 stories without elevator) based on French flats, with up-to-date plumbing, private toilets and private halls. For decades, Height lived in the building with her best friend, businesswoman Yvonne Ray, and Robert Hall, the widower of Yvonne’s twin sister.
[1]“Dorothy Height, civil rights activist, dies at 98”. Associated Press. April 20, 2010
[2] Harris, Paisley Jane. “Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism”. Journal of Women's History 15.1(2003): 212-220
[3] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. June 18, 2002
[4] Height, Dorothy. Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir. New York: Public Affairs, 2003. Print