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date: 16 September 2019

Chisholm, Shirleyfree

(30 November 1924–01 January 2005)
  • Edward L. Lach Jr.

Shirley Chisholm.

Announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination, 25 January, 1972. Photograph by Thomas J. O'Halloran.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-DIG-ppmsc-01264).

Chisholm, Shirley (30 November 1924–01 January 2005), first African-American congresswoman and educator, was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Charles Christopher St. Hill, a factory worker, and Ruby Seale, a seamstress and domestic worker. She was sent to Barbados for economic reasons at the age of three, where she lived on her maternal grandmother's farm and attended elementary school. Upon returning to New York seven years later she attended local public schools and graduated from Girls' High School in 1942. Despite scholarship offers her family lacked the funds to help her attend a more distant college, so she entered nearby (and tuition-free) Brooklyn College with the intent of becoming a teacher. She became interested in politics while earning her B.A.

Upon graduating in 1946 she struggled to find a job in a market glutted with returning World War II veterans before landing a position as a teacher's aide at Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem. She also worked toward a master's degree at nearby Teachers College of Columbia University at night. In 1949 she married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator. The couple had no children.

After graduating from Columbia with an M.A. in early childhood education in 1951, Shirley Chisholm spent a year as the director of a private nursery school in Brooklyn before moving into a similar position at the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in Lower Manhattan. She became increasingly active in Democratic Party polities at the clubhouse level, joining the Seventeenth Assembly District Democratic Club in Brooklyn. There she fought tirelessly to include female and minority voices in what was then a set of organizations thoroughly dominated by white males. Working outside the regular party machinery, she joined forces with the activist Wesley McDonald Holder and in 1953 successfully nominated and elected Lewis S. Flagg, Jr., as the first African-American municipal court judge in Brooklyn's history. In 1954 the duo formed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League with the goal of pushing for greater African-American representation among elected officials. Although successful in increasing minority voter registration and participation, the group floundered shortly after Chisholm and Holder had a falling out in 1958, which resulted in her resignation from the organization.

In 1959 Chisholm was appointed director of the New York City Division of Day Care, where she was responsible for managing ten city-run day care centers. In 1960 she reentered the political fray as part of the reform-minded Unity Democratic Club. By 1962 she was a member of the organization's board, and in 1964 she won a seat in the New York State Assembly. During her four years in Albany she served on the Education Committee and sponsored numerous bills, including increased assistance for low-income students seeking higher education, unemployment insurance coverage for domestic workers, and maternity leave tenure protection for teachers.

Chisholm—against the advice of experts and conventional wisdom—decided to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968. Aided by former colleague Holder, with whom she was now reconciled, and the support of the Unity Club, she won a hard-fought race against the civil rights veteran James Farmer, becoming in the process the first African-American woman ever elected to Congress. Upon arriving in Washington, she immediately ran afoul of the House's notorious seniority system and was chagrined to find herself assigned to the Agricultural Committee with a subcommittee assignment in forestry. Furious at being placed where she could be of no service to her constituents—"Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grows there" (Scheader, p. 82)—her subsequent bold confrontation with the House Ways and Means Committee chairman Wilbur Mills in closed party caucus did result in a reassignment to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. She further stunned fellow Democrats when she supported the incumbent Republican New York City mayor John Lindsay's reelection bid over the Democratic nominee. Easily reelected to a second term in 1970, she gained a seat on the Education and Labor Committee and in 1971 became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In addition to her consistent support for the advancement of women, inner-city residents, and minorities, she was a staunch advocate of ending both the draft and the Vietnam War (considering it wasteful of both lives and dollars and that the money was better spent at home) and of abortion rights.

In 1972, at the urging of the many student groups from which she had received speaking engagements, and again contrary to all conventional wisdom, she sought the Democratic nomination for president. Although she knew from the start that she could not win, Chisholm soldiered on; as she often noted, her campaign received more opposition from the fact that she was female than her minority status. Plagued from the onset by lack of funds and organization, she nevertheless saw her name placed in nomination and received 152 votes on the first ballot of a nominating process that ultimately went to George McGovern. Following her defeat at the convention in Miami, Chisholm sought and won reelection to the House. In 1977, following her divorce from her first husband, she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a widower businessman with whom she had previously served in the New York State Assembly. She continued to serve in the House until 1982, ultimately benefitting from the seniority system that she had once scorned, even serving from 1977 to 1981 as secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.

Following her retirement from Congress, Chisholm taught politics and women's studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts between 1983 and 1987 and also served as a visiting scholar at Atlanta's Spelman College in 1985. In 1993 she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame. In declining health in her later years, she turned down an appointment as ambassador to Jamaica by President Bill Clinton and retired to Florida, dying in Ormond Beach.

Shirley Chisholm's place in history seems secure. An outspoken advocate for women and minorities, she wanted to be remembered as a woman who fought for change. As a pioneer in the field of politics, her impressive individual achievements were matched by the path that she helped smooth for the candidates who followed in her footsteps.

Bibliography

Chisholm wrote two autobiographies. Unbought and Unbossed (1970) focuses on her overall career, while The Good Fight (1973) focuses on her 1972 presidential run. Although geared toward students, Catherine Scheader's Shirley Chisholm, Teacher and Congresswoman (1990) is an excellent secondary source of information on her life and career. Julie A. Gallagher, Black Women and Politics in New York City (2012), surveys the generation of women who went into politics in the 1940s and 1950s, including Chisholm. Obituaries appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, 3 Jan. 2005.