As the first African American woman elected to Congress, and the first woman and African American to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Shirley Chisholm was a true trailblazer who remained Unbought and Unbossed — her motto and the title of her first book — throughout her life.
Shirley St. Hill Chisholm was born on November 30, 1924, in Bedford Stuyvesant to Charles and Ruby St. Hill. Her father was from British Guiana and her mother was from Barbados.
When Chisholm was three years old, she was sent to live in Barbados with her maternal grandmother. She later credited the strict education she received in Barbados with providing her a strong academic background.
At age ten, she rejoined her parents in Brooklyn. She met Eleanor Roosevelt when she was 14, and took to heart Mrs. Roosevelt’s advice, “Don’t let anybody stand in your way.”
Shirley excelled in academics at Girls High School in Bed-Stuy, from which she graduated in 1942. She then went on to enroll in Brooklyn College, where she majored in sociology. She graduated in 1946 with honors.
During this time, it was difficult for Black college graduates to obtain employment commensurate to their education. After being rejected by many companies, she obtained a job at the Mt. Calvary Childcare Center in Harlem.
In 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican who worked as a private investigator. Shirley and her husband participated in local politics, helping form the Bedford Stuyvesant Political League. In addition to participating in politics, Chisholm worked in the field of daycare until 1959.
In 1960, she started the Unity Democratic Club, which was instrumental in mobilizing Black and Hispanic voters. Her community base at the Unity Democratic Club helped make possible a win when she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964.
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm ran for Congress from Brooklyn, winning that seat while running against James Farmer, a veteran of the 1960s Freedom Rides in the south. She thus became the first black woman elected to Congress. In 1970, she wrote her and published her first book, Unbought and Unbossed (1970).
She hired only women for her staff. She was known for taking positions against the Vietnam War, for standing up for minority and women’s issues, and for challenging the Congressional seniority system.
In 1971, Chisholm was a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
She was a sought-after public speaker and co-founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She remarked that, “Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.”
When Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, she knew that she could not win the nomination, but nevertheless, she wanted to raise issues she felt were important. She was the first African American and the first woman to run for president.
Following her presidential run, she wrote another book, The Good Fight (1973). Chisholm went on to serve in Congress for six more terms, until 1982.
Following her retirement from politics, Chisholm received many honorary degrees, including Alumna of the Year, Brooklyn College; Key Woman of the Year; Outstanding Work in the Field of Child Welfare; and Woman of Achievement.
In 1984, she helped form the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW). She taught, as the Purington Professor at Mount Holyoke College and spoke widely. She moved to Florida in 1991 and briefly served as ambassador to Jamaica during the Clinton administration.
Shirley Chisholm died in Florida on January 1, 2005 after a series of strokes.
In 2004, she said about herself, “I want history to remember me not just as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first Black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”
Shirley Chisholm was a passionate leader and an effective advocate for the needs of minorities, women and children. She has opened many doors for future generations and has forever changed the nation’s perception about the capabilities of women and African Americans.
Shirley Chisholm, we acknowledge your unparalleled leadership and influence, and we honor your lifelong contributions.
*Sources, Greatwomen.org, essortment.com, biography.com, patch.com
February is Black History Month! Every day this month, BK Reader will profile one Black History Maker born or raised in Brooklyn. There are countless Brooklynites– past and present– who have contributed to America’s fabric as pioneers or leaders in art, entertainment, sports, science and government. This month, we present to you 28! Click here to see all of the profiles.
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