Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was an advocate for the rights of people of color and for women’s rights. She became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress in November 1968. Four years later she became the first African American to seek a major party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency when she ran for the Democratic Party nomination.
Chisholm was born in Brooklyn as the eldest of four daughters to parents who were immigrants from Barbados. She received her B.A. degree from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in 1946 and she earned her M.A. degree from Columbia University in 1952 while working as a nursery school teacher, director of a child care center and later as an educational with the city’s child care department. In 1964, she began her political career as a member of the New York State legislature. After four years there, she was elected on the Democratic ticket to serve in the U.S. Congress. She served two terms and in 1972 ran in the New York Democratic primary for president of the United States, establishing another first for African American women.
Chisholm represented New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and when initially elected, was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, which she felt was irrelevant to her urban constituency. In a rare move, she demanded reassignment and got switched to the Veterans Affairs Committee. By the time she left that chamber, she had held a place on the prized Rules and Education and Labor Committees.
Chisholm recounted her campaign for the presidency in her documentary film, Unbought and Unbossed that, after her passing in 2005, stared in the Sundance Film Festival and later was the winner of the Peabody Award. After leaving Congress, she was named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts where she taught for four years. In 1985 she became a visiting scholar at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. In the later years of her life, Chisholm became a sought-after speaker on the lecture circuit. Shirley passed away on January 1st, 2005.
Sources: W. A. Low and Virgil A. Clift, eds. Encyclopedia of Black America (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981); Jessie Carney Smith, ed. Black Firsts: 4000 Groundbreaking and Pioneering Historical Events (Canton, Missouri: Visible Ink Press, 2003).
(Photo by Fred De Van//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)