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Firsts in February: Shirley Chisholm

Often, politicians grapple with serving their constituents and remaining loyal to the political players who helped them climb the career ladder within the web of politics that defines the United States government system. For Shirley Chisholm, who described herself as “the people’s politician” and “Fighting Shirley” under a campaign of remaining a representative who was “unbought and unbossed,” her ascension to become the first Black woman elected to the United States House of Representative and the first African American candidate to seek the nomination from a major party during a presidential race in the country, her dedication lay in working with her colleagues, but her determination remained to serve her constituents.

According to the House of Representatives, Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 30, 1924. The child of immigrants, Chisholm’s father, Charles St. Hill hailed from Guyana and her mother Ruby Seale St. Hill was from Barbados, where Chisholm lived during part of her childhood. In Barbados, she spent time on her grandparents’ farm and received an education of high caliber while attending one of the country’s British schools.


After returning to the United States, Chisholm lived and attended school in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, says the House of Representatives. Her exceptionally studious nature led to a scholarship and cum laude award upon graduation from Brooklyn College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology. During her time as a student at Brooklyn College, Chisholm was an award-winning member of the school’s debate team, according to an article written by Debra Michals, PhD, for the National Women’s History Museum. At Columbia University, Chisholm received a Master of Arts degree in early childhood education, in 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm. After her work as a nursery-school teacher and director, Chisholm worked as an educational consultant within the division of daycare in New York City.


In her piece, Michals continues to outline Chisholm’s career, illustrating how the emerging public servant eventually became the second African American person to join the New York State Legislature. Following a court order of redistricting, Chisholm’s neighborhood received a Democratically leaning district, leading to her win of a Congressional seat in 1968, a position in which she focused on aiding the economically disadvantaged, issues of race and gender equity, and ending the war in Vietnam. This was the first time a Black woman had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. According to NPR, Chisholm’s time served in Congress also included her co-founding of the Congressional Black Caucus, advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment, and support of Title IX, the amendment designed to end discrimination toward women within sports and education programs that received federal funding.

“My dear friends, tonight is a very important night, not so much for me, but for you, the people of this community,” she said during her 1968 victory speech obtained by NPR, which the news outlet published in November 2018. “After many years of struggle and sacrifices on the part of several of you here this evening, we have at long last been able to elect today a voice that shall be your voice in the halls of the United States Congress.”


During the race leading up to the 1972 presidential election in the United States, Chisholm became the first Black candidate who sought a nomination from a major party, according to the National Archives. She was also the first woman to seek the presidential nomination from the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, during her campaign Chisholm encountered discrimination as a Black woman, such as denial of participation in televised primary debates, according to Michals, who also noted that the legislator pursued legal action resulting in her being afforded exposure to make one speech. Though unsuccessful in her efforts to gain the nomination, Chisholm’s efforts left a lasting impression in U.S. politics, as she remained an inspirational icon for women and those politicians who believe in posing an authentic effort for effective solutions that impact the real lives of everyday people.


Following her attempt to gain the Democratic nomination for president, Chisholm returned to her congressional seat representing the 12th district for New York, a role she fulfilled until her retirement in 1983. House Democrats in 1977 elected Chisholm as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, the same year that she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., following her divorce from Conrad Chisholm.


In its segment, “A Look Back on Shirley Chisholm’s Historic 1968 House Victory,” NPR shared an NBC News interview in which a student from her district inquired about Chisholm’s feelings regarding her status as the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.


“I have mixed feelings,” Chisholm replied. “First of all, I am very glad to have been able to make history in this country by being the first Black woman. Boys and girls, as far as I am concerned, actually it’s overdue, so I don’t get terribly excited about it.”


Upon her retirement from Congress in 1983, Chisholm began teaching at Mount Holyoke College, notes Michals, in addition to co-founding the National Political Congress of Black Women. Chisholm moved to Florida in the early 1990s, where she lived until her death in 2005.


According to NPR, a 2004 documentary titled “Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed,” which was directed by Shola Lynch, included commentary from Chisholm. At one point during the film, Chisholm reveals how she would like to be remembered during history.


“I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she said.


Chisholm’s autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed,” was released in 1970 with a 40th anniversary edition unveiled in 2010. The book touched upon her childhood spent in Barbados, return to Brooklyn, spanned her college years, marriage, and entrance and career in politics.


In 2015, Chisolm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama, who admired the former congressmember’s ability to “look straight ahead,” towards her goals in public service. Today, Chisholm’s legacy rings loudly as women such as Lauren Underwood, Ayanna Pressley, Stacey Abrams, Cori Bush and—of course—Vice President Kamala Harris cite their predecessor as inspiration along their paths in politics and public service.

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