Vice President Kamala Harris may now preside in the Senate and be able to cast crucial tie-breaking votes. Black women from veteran California Congresswoman Maxine Waters to influential relative newcomers like the Squad’s Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Cori Bush as well as Illinois’s own Lauren Underwood, all owe a debt of gratitude to a pioneer.
On November 5, 1968 a slender and bespectacled early childhood educator became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. It would not be the last of Shirley Chisholm’s political firsts.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 30, 1924 the oldest of four daughters to immigrant parents Charles St. Hill, a factory worker from Guyana, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados.
When her mother struggled to raise her children while working, Shirley and two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados in 1931. They lived on her grandmother’s farm in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church where they attended a one room school. She later wrote of the experience:
Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason….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.
The girls returned to New York in 1934 during the depths of the Depression. A star student in New York public schools, in 1940 Shirley was admitted to Girls’ High School in Bedford–Stuyvesant, a highly regarded, integrated school that attracted girls from throughout Brooklyn. From there she went on to Brooklyn College from which she graduated with honors in1946. During college she was noted for her debating skills. Her impressed instructors urged her to consider entering politics but she demurred saying that she had a double handicap as both Black and female. Instead she became a pre-school teacher.
During the post-war years Shirley met Jamaican immigrant Conrad O. Chisholm, a private detective, of all things and perfect for the film noir era. The young couple celebrated a festive wedding attended by many in Brooklyn’s large Anglo-Caribbean community.Shirley Chisholm as a young woman.
As Shirley Chisholm she continued to work while earning her MA in elementary education from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1952. Armed with the graduate degree she became the Director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and then the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in Manhattan. And from 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant for New York City Division of Day Care.
As an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare with a growing reputation, Chisholm was drawn to politics where she hoped to advance those issues and raise the voice of both Blacks and women. She started as a volunteer with the then still White male dominated Bedford-Stuyvesant Democratic Club when such local clubs were the street-level power centers for New York City Democratic Party. In the face of racial and gender inequality, she also joined local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the National Association of College Women.
Chisholm and precinct voting reports from her 1964 election to the New York State Assembly.
Her political acumen and wide contacts led Chisholm to run for the New York State Assembly in 1964. She became just the second African American in the Legislature. She was re-elected to two more terms serving until 1968. She accomplished much in Albany including opposing an English language literacy test for voting because a person “functions better in his native language is no sign a person is illiterate.” She was a prime mover in getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers, and enacting the SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) which provided disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education.
She also worked tirelessly to expand Black voice and influence in government. By early 1966 she was a leader in a push by the statewide Council of Elected Negro Democrats for Black representation on key committees in the Assembly.
In 1968 Federal Court ordered redistricting created the newly re-drawn 12th Congressional District centered on Bedford-Stuyvesant which was expected to give Brooklyn its first Black Representative. After the previous white Representative chose to run in a more favorable District, Chisholm faced two other Black candidates in the April primary—State Senator William S. Thompson and labor union officer Dollie Robertson. She ran with the campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” an acknowledgement that the fading remnants of the old Tammany machine which backed Thompson. She won the nomination.
Her rising star was recognized when she was elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State and attended the notoriously raucous Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August, her first introduction to the national stage.
Despite this, political odds makers rated her as an underdog in the November General Election where she faced a much better known opponent, James Farmer, the Director of the militant civil rights organization the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a vocal proponent of the rising Black Power movement. Farmer ran on the Liberal Party ticket and had the support of the New York Republicans who still had the allegiance of many older Blacks who remembered it as the party of Lincoln. But Chisholm crushed him in the election by a two to one margin thanks to her deep roots in the community and the perception that Farmer, a Southerner, was an interloper.
Chisholm celebrated her election to Congress with supporters in Brooklyn.
Congress did not exactly open its arms to the freshman member from New York. She was assigned to the Agriculture Committee which she considered was an insult to her urban district. But a close friend and supporter Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Hassidic Lubavitcher Rebbe, suggested that she use to committee to expand food assistance to the poor. She then partnered across the aisle with Republican Senator Robert Dole of Kansas to expand the Food Stamp program and later played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.
That kind of political practicality came into play in her second term when she voted for Hale Boggs of Louisiana for Democratic House Majority Leader over John Connors of Michigan. Despite affection for Connors, she could count votes and knew there was no way he could then be elected. She supported Boggs over a symbolic protest. The House leadership rewarded her with an appointment to the Education and Labor Committee where she felt she could best represent her constituents.
Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 and the same year, she was also a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Chisholm's presidential bid announcement rally at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York in January 1971.
Late in 1971 Chisholm decided to launch a long-shot campaign for the 1972 Democratic Presidential nomination as a strong opponent of the Vietnam War and critic of military spending as well as an unabashed supporter of women’s rights and for social justice. At the Brooklyn announcement of her bid she called for a “bloodless revolution” at the Democratic Convention in Miami. She told her supporters:
I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.
She became the first Black to seek a major party nomination for President and the first woman to run as a Democrat. The political establishment, including most of the male members of the Congressional Black Caucus, was hostile or indifferent. The press regarded her as a merely symbolic candidate and largely ignored her campaign. Without deep pocket donors her campaign was cash strapped from the beginning—she raised and spent only about $300,000 over the entire primary and caucus season and was only able to get on primary ballots in 14 states and could not even afford to visit many of them. Yet she plunged ahead.
It was a complex and crowded field led by anti-war Senator George McGovern of South Dakota and by the Happy Warrior, former Vice President and 1968 nominee Hubert Humphrey. Alabama Governor and ardent segregationist George Wallace was running this time as a Democrat and was expected to sweep much of the South and pick off votes of disgruntled working class Whites in Rust Belt States. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Senator from Boing, was running as a pro-war moderate liberal and North Carolina Governor Terry Sanford hoped to woo moderate Southerners.
Chisholm set tongues wagging when she visited Wallace in his hospital room after he was shot in an assassination attempt in May. She cited common humanity and noted that the African-American community had lost leaders to assassins. None-the-less she was heavily criticized by many Black leaders.
It was only after Wallace was shot that Chisholm was given the same Secret Service protection as the other candidates despite at least three credible threats on her life. Prior to that her husband was her personal bodyguard.
She was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one broadcast speech.
Chisholm won the largely meaningless New Jersey Primary “Beauty Contest” but gained only two delegates because she did not field a full slate of Convention Delegates. Overall, she won 28 delegates during the primaries process and garnered 430,703 votes, 2.7% of nearly 16 million cast and represented seventh place among the Democratic contenders.
At the Convention in July it was apparent that McGovern was the likely winner, but Humphrey still hoped to block his nomination. He released his Black delegates to vote for Chisholm if they wished. Mississippi had two contesting delegations—Regulars who supported Wallace or Jackson, and “Loyalists” mostly leaning for McGovern. The Loyalists won the credential fight but some McGovern supporters became angry at public statement of the candidate which seemed to back pedal on his pledge to withdraw from Vietnam. She ended up with 12 of the state’s 25 votes. Mostly Black uncommitted delegates from Louisiana cast 18.5 of its 44 votes for Chisholm. In the end, Chisholm won 152 delegate votes and finished fourth in the rollcall balloting.
Still, her historic bid was not a failure. She declared that she ran, “in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
It was not a Democratic year anyway. McGovern stumbled to the worst Electoral College drubbing in history. Of course Richard Nixon’s totally unnecessary spying on the Democratic National Committee and assorted dirty tricks soon took down his Presidency.
Chisholm returned to the House where she continued to pile up achievements. She worked to improve opportunities for inner-city residents, was a vocal opponent of the Draft and supported spending increases for education, health care and other social services offset by reductions in military spending. She also worked for the revocation of the Post-war Red Scare era McCarran Act of 1950 which authorized some of the worst domestic political repression in American history as well as the establishment of detainment camps that were originally intended for Communists and leftists but which the Nixon administration was considering using to detain Black militants, student radicals, and anti-war leaders. During the Jimmy Carter administration, she advocate for equal treatment of Haitian refugees with anti-Castro Cubans.
In 1977 Chisholm was elected to the House Leadership as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, a position that had become reserved for a woman.
But the same year her long time marriage to Conrad Chisholm ended in divorce. A year later she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a former New York State Assemblyman whom Chisholm had known when they both served in that body and who was then a Buffalo liquor store owner.
Chisholm’s drive to secure a minimum wage for domestic workers finally paid off, in part because of her long ago kindness to George Wallace. Wallace had returned to the Governor’s Mansion in Montgomery still wracked with pain from his injuries and confined to a wheel chair. He also pursued a new policy of racial reconciliation with the appointment of Blacks to key positions on his staff and in the administration. Wallace used his considerable influence with several Southern members of Congress to convince them to support Chisholm’s bill.
Her husband was seriously injured in an auto accident and Chisholm was dismayed by the disarray of liberal politics in the early years of the Reagan Revolution. She announced her retirement after her seventh term, leaving Congress after the 1982 election.Chisholm in maturity.
She taught at Mount Holyoke College as the Purington Chair at the prestigious women’s college, a position previously held by W. H. Auden, Bertrand Russell, and Arna Bontemps. She remained active in politics and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. She supported Jesse Jackson’s two campaigns for the Democratic Presidential nomination. She also spoke widely on college campuses.
Arthur Hardwick died in 1986 and her own health began to decline. In 1991 she retired to Florida. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined due to poor health. The same year she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida after suffering several strokes. She was buried in the Oakwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo next to her second husband.Chisholm's First Class Forever Stamp from the Postal Service's Black Heritage series.
Chisholm’s posthumous honors included being portrayed on a United States Postal Service Black Heritage First Class stamp in 2014 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo dedicated the Shirley Chisholm State Park, along 3.5 miles of the Jamaica Bay coastline. In a unique monument is slated to be erected in New York City’s Prospect Park, the first woman to be so honored by She Built NYC, a public-arts campaign that honors pioneering women by installing monuments that “celebrate their extraordinary contributions to the city and beyond.”The Brooklyn Eagle previewed the innovative design for Chisholm's Prospect Park monument on its front page.
But Chisholm’s real legacy was the doors she opened. Beneficiaries include Geraldine Ferrero, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and many of the women elected in the 2018 Blue Wave election.