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SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: Impassioned Trailblazer

Updated: Dec 20, 2023

SHIRLEY ANITA CHISHOLM (born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924; died January 1, 2005) was an impassioned trailblazer. She was the first Black woman elected to the U.S.Congress (1968), the first Black person to seek the Presidential nomination by either of the two major political parties, and the first woman to run for the Democratic party's Presidential nomination (1972). Her motto and the title of her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, illustrated her outspoken advocacy for children, minorities, and women during her seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1968-1982). Chisholm's diminutive size belied her tenacious spirit and enviable ease with public speaking, a skill honed while on her college debate team. Her booming voice seemed to enter the room before she did.

Upon her arrival on Capitol Hill, she received a chilly reception by most of the male House members, which was only made worse by her refusal to abide by long-standing expectations for first-termers. Instead of being a "good soldier" by keeping a low profile, Chisholm famously said, "I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to focus attention on the nation's problems." True to her word, she did just that, lashing out against the Vietnam War in her fiery first floor speech to Congress on March 26, 1969: “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country — poverty and racism — and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free,” said Chisholm.

During her tenure in Congress, "Fighting Shirley'' introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation that championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor and early childhood and maternal nutrition, and was the architect of the nationwide WIC (Women, Infants & Children) Program. Chisholm was co-founder and the only female member of the inaugural class of The Congressional Black Caucus (1969) and was a member of the founding class of The Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues (1977). In 1977, she became the first Black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee. Seemingly fearless, her courage in the face of death threats and intimidation was truly remarkable. A year before her death at age 80, when asked about her legacy, Chisholm said, "I want to be remembered as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America."

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Chisholm was the oldest of four daughters of her immigrant parents, Charles St. Hill, a factory worker from British Guiana, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados. When her parents struggled financially during the Great Depression, at age three she and her siblings were sent to live with her maternal grandmother on her farm in Barbados. She later said, "Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn't need the Black revolution to tell me that. Chisholm credited her time in Barbados as the foundation for her tenacity. She once said, "I'm very religious, but I don't wear my religion on my sleeve. Being brought up in a Quaker brethren, your mind and body are very disciplined. Everything is anchored in God." During those formative years in Barbados, she attended a strict, traditional British-style school, which gave her a lifelong slight British accent. At age nine, Chisholm and her siblings were reunited with their parents, who had purchased a home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. It was an ethnically diverse neighborhood of immigrants. She attended the public and highly regarded Girls' High School, where she excelled.

Accepted and offered scholarships to Vassar and Oberlin Colleges, her family could not afford the costs of room and board. So she attended Brooklyn College, while living at home and commuting. There her professors encouraged her to enter politics. In 1946, Chisholm graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, and a minor in Spanish, which she spoke fluently and often used during her campaigns. Initially she worked as a nursery school teacher, then as the director of two daycare centers. In 1949, she married Conrad W. Chisholm, a private investigator (they divorced in 1977, having had no children after she reportedly suffered two miscarriages). By 1951, she had earned a master's degree in early childhood education from Columbia University, and served as an educational consultant for NYC's division of day care. In 1964, she handily won election to the NY State Assembly, her great intellect and quick wit having made her a formidable opponent to her fellow candidates. She was only the second Black woman to serve in Albany. While there, she pioneered the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge), which provided state-funded financial support and individualized counseling to low-income students who enrolled in the public NYC college system. The program is still actively benefiting students today.

In 1968, she truly broke ground, being elected as a Democrat to represent a newly created court-ordered 12th U.S. Congressional district of her own Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Although she could be unyielding when she deemed necessary, her tenure while in Congress was also marked by her willingness to reach across the aisle to Republican colleagues in order to achieve her legislative goals of higher wages for domestic workers and improved education, healthcare and employment opportunities for the Black, Brown and working class people she represented. In turn, she earned the trust of her constituents, which buoyed her run for president. In 1972, despite opposition from members of her own party, entrenched sexism and racism in politics, and bare-bones funding, Chisholm pursued her historic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. At the Democratic National Convention in Miami, she again made history, collecting 152 delegate votes (10 percent of the votes cast), paving the way for future generations. In defeat, Chisholm declared, “I ran for the Presidency despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” In 1977, she married her second husband, Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a NY state legislator. With the rising wave of conservatism ushered in by the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, Chisholm decided not to seek re-election in 1982. However, the more personal reason was that her husband had suffered serious injuries in a car accident. She reflected, "I had been so consumed by my life in politics, I had no time for privacy, no time for my husband or to play my grand piano...I decided to make some changes in my life. I truly believe God had a message for me."

Upon leaving office in 1982, Chisholm returned to her roots as an educator at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. When asked why she chose to teach at a predominantly white all-women's liberal arts college, she said pensively her aim was to teach students to combat polarization and hostility. ''If you don't accept others who are different,'' she noted, ''it means nothing that you've learned calculus.'' She continued to work on issues aimed at creating a more just society and co-founded The National Congress of Black Women. In 1991, she moved to Florida, where she wrote and lectured. Though nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica by President William Clinton in 1993, she declined due to ill health. When Shirley Chisholm passed away, she had already become a legend. Since her death, Chisholm has been honored with her official portrait in the U.S.Capitol (2009), awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama (2015), had an eponymous living community on Mt. Holyoke College campus established, and had the 407-acre Shirley Chisholm State Park opened in her home borough of Brooklyn (2019).

Shirley Chisholm's ground-breaking and enduring legacy is embodied in another of her famous quotes, "You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas."

S. Patricia Pearson, M.D.

Coalition4Justice, Steering Committee



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