The hat, a lavender hue with a beaded design and cream-toned bow, lay at an empty place at a Coppin State University table Sunday, a reminder that Dorothy I. Height, the civil rights icon recognizable by her hats, was not among the more than 500 people there.
The crowd had gathered to pay tribute to her, as the historically black university kicked off a campaign to create an enduring recognition of her achievements in civil rights, women's rights and social justice. It will establish the Dorothy I. Height Endowed Chair and Lectureship in Social Work and Social Justice and the Dorothy I. Height Center for the Advancement of Social Justice.
The longtime president of the National Council of Negro Women was to have spoken as she acknowledged the honor, but she died last week at the age of 98.
The event, a year in the making, went on, announcing a $3 million fundraising drive for the projects.
"She is here in spirit. We know she is looking down at us and saying ‘Way to go,'" said Coppin President Reginald S. Avery. He said that when she was approached more than a year ago about the honor, "there were tears in her eyes."
The goal, he said, is to create a home for research and forums in social work and social justice.
Many of the speakers who recalled Height's dedication and grace knew her for years and considered her an adviser, and all spoke of her advice that they get the job done and not fret about who gets credit.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat, met Height when he was a young activist, and Height attended his 70th birthday party in March. "I tried to hug her. I tried to kiss her. But I couldn't get under the hat," he said.
Because Sunday's event was a "hat's on" tribute to a woman known for stylish headwear, many women were wearing spectacular hats.
Roslyn M. Brock, chairwoman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, recalled that Height, whom she met in 1989, became a mentor — not only to her, but to many African-Americans now in leadership roles in business, in government and in the community.
"It's really a duty and obligation of the next generation of leaders to pay tribute to those who have come before," Brock said.
Among those in attendance were actress Cicely Tyson, who recalled their long friendship, and Gov. Martin O'Malley.