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  Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924-2005)
In honor of Black History Month, all month long we will be sharing the legacies and stories of the heroes, sheroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. Follow us on Twitter (@VRAmatters) to share your own facts.   

Today we honor Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, who was the first African-American woman in Congress in 1968; and, was the first African-American and African-American woman to make a serious presidential bid for a major party in 1972. Chisholm was a Black woman who lived in the twentieth century who was a catalyst for change in America.

Click the video screenshot below to see how Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm says she wants to be remembered:

Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley St. Anita Hill on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. "Her father, an emigrant from Guyana, worked as an unskilled laborer, and her mother, a native of Barbados, was a seamstress and a domestic worker. Extraordinary circumstances [ the Great Depression] separated Chisholm from her parents for much of her early childhood. Struggling to save money for a house and for their children's education, the St. Hills sent their four daughters to live on the farm of a grandmother in Barbados. From the age of three to the age of 11, Chisholm received a British elementary school education".

In  an interview video series with the Visionary Project, Chisholm recounts that receiving an education in the West Indies in Barbados is what made her such a success, with her and her other 3 siblings all receiving scholarships. She says that the school systems in Barbados were superior to the education that she received in the United States, and it drove her love of education. When Chisholm came back to the United States, she attended a Brooklyn Girls' high school and graduated with very high marks.

"Chisholm earned a scholarship to study sociology at Brooklyn College. She quickly became active in political circles, joining the Harriet Tubman Society, serving as an Urban League volunteer, and winning prizes in debate." After winning in a New York state-wide debate competition, Chisholm met Eleanor Roosevelt. In the Visionary Project's interview, Chisholm cites Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the women who influenced her, saying that the first words Eleanor told Chisholm was that she was "very smart and intelligent", and that she "must fight" and not let anyone stand in her way- "even women".

There are many well-known things that influenced Chisholm to become the outstanding and trailblazing pioneer that she became; and, there are also many things Chisholm did in her career that are less known:

  •  "Chisholm won tuition scholarships to several distinguished colleges but was unable to afford the room and board. At the urging of her parents she decided to live at home and attend Brooklyn College."[She] attended Brooklyn College on scholarship and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology in 1946."

  • "While training to be a teacher, Chisholm became active in several campus and community groups. She developed an interest in politics and learned the arts of organizing and fund-raising. Soon, she developed a deep resentment toward the role of women in local politics, which, at the time, consisted mostly of staying in the background and playing a secondary role to their male equals. Through campus politics and her work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization that was formed in 1909 to work for equal rights for African Americans, Chisholm found a way to voice her opinions about economic and social structures in a rapidly changing nation."

  • "While teaching nursery school and serving as director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brooklyn, she studied elementary education at Columbia University (M.A., 1952) and married Conrad Q. Chisholm in 1949 (divorced 1977). An education consultant for New York City’s day-care division, she was also active with community and political groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)and her district’s Unity Democratic Club. In 1964–68 she represented her Brooklyn district in the New York state legislature."

  • "She married Conrad Q. Chisholm, a private investigator, in 1949. Three years later, Shirley Chisholm earned an M.A. in early childhood education from Columbia University. She served as an educational consultant for New York City's Division of Day Care from 1959 to 1964. In 1964, Chisholm was elected to the New York state legislature; she was the second African–American woman to serve in Albany."

  • "In the primary [for the Brooklyn congressional district of Chisholm's Bedford-–Stuyvesant neighborhood], Chisholm faced three African–American challengers: civil court judge Thomas R. Jones, a former district leader and New York assemblyman; Dolly Robinson, a former district co–leader; and William C. Thompson, a well–financed state senator. Chisholm roamed the new district in a sound truck that pulled up outside housing projects while she announced: 'Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.' Chisholm capitalized on her personal campaign style. 'I have a way of talking that does something to people,' she noted. 'I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you.' In the primary in mid–June 1968, Chisholm defeated Thompson, her nearest competitor, by about 800 votes in an election characterized by light voter turnout." (footnotes omitted)

  • "In the general election, Chisholm faced Republican–Liberal James Farmer, one of the principal figures of the civil rights movement, a cofounder of the Congress for Racial Equality, and an organizer of the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s. The two candidates held similar positions on housing, employment, and education issues, and both opposed the Vietnam War. Farmer charged that the Democratic Party 'took [blacks] for granted and thought they had us in their pockets.… We must be in a position to use our power as a swing vote. 'But the election turned on the issue of gender. Farmer hammered away, arguing that 'women have been in the driver's seat' in black communities for too long and that the district needed 'a man's voice in Washington' not that of a 'little schoolteacher.' Chisholm, whose campaign motto was 'unbought and unbossed,' met that charge head–on, using Farmer's rhetoric to highlight discrimination against women and explain her unique qualifications. 'There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn't deliver,' Chisholm countered. 'People came and asked me to do something … I'm here because of the vacuum.' Chisholm portrayed Farmer as an outsider (he lived in Manhattan) and used her fluent Spanish to appeal to the growing Hispanic population in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood. (Puerto Rican immigrants accounted for about 20 percent of the district vote.) The deciding factor, however, was the district's overwhelming liberal tilt: More than 80 percent of the voters were registered Democrats. Chisholm won the general election by a resounding 67 percent of the vote." (footnotes omitted)

  •  "In Congress she quickly became known as a strong liberal who opposed weapons development and the war in Vietnam and favoured full-employment proposals." "Chisholm was the only new woman to enter Congress in 1969."

  • "Chisholm vowed to vote against any defense appropriation bill 'until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right–side up again.' She was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, a decision she appealed directly to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts (bypassing Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, who oversaw Democratic committee appointments). McCormack told her to be a 'good soldier,' at which point Chisholm brought her complaint to the House Floor. She was reassigned to the Veterans' Affairs Committee which, though not one of her top choices, was more relevant to her district's makeup. 'There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees," she quipped. From 1971 to 1977 she served on the Committee on Education and Labor, having won a place on that panel with the help of Hale Boggs of Louisiana, whom she had endorsed as Majority Leader.' She also served on the Committee on Organization Study and Review (known as the Hansen Committee), whose recommended reforms for the selection of committee chairmen were adopted by the Democratic Caucus in 1971. From 1977 to 1981, Chisholm served as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus. She eventually left her Education Committee assignment to accept a seat on the Rules Committee in 1977, becoming the first black woman—and the second woman ever—to serve on that powerful panel. Chisholm also was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and the Congressional Women's Caucus in 1977." (emphasis added; footnotes omitted)

  • During Chisholm's time in Congress, "[s]he championed a bill to ensure domestic workers received benefits, was an advocate for improved access to education, and fought for the rights of immigrants. She sponsored a bill to expand childcare for women, supported the national school lunch bill and helped establish the national commission on consumer protection and product safety.

    Shirley Chisholm also worked tirelessly to expand the government-funded food stamps programme [sic] so it was available in every state, and was instrumental in setting up an additional scheme, The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Wic), which provided support for pregnant women."  (emphasis added)

"It was during [Chisholm's] 2nd term in the House that Chisholm ran for the US Presidency.  She became the 1st black woman to run for president, but this is not what she wanted people to focus on during her campaign.  The fact that her campaign was seen primarily as “symbolic” by many really hurt her.  She did not run on the mere base of being a “first,” but because she wanted to be seen as “a real, viable candidate.”

Her bid for the presidency was referred to as the “Chisholm Trail,” and she won a lot of support from students, women and minority groups.  She entered 11 primaries and campaigned in several states, particularly Florida, but with little money she was challenged.  Her campaign was “under-organized, under-financed and unprepared.” It was calculated that she raised and spent only $300,000 between July 1971 when she first thought of running, and July of 1972.

Overall, people in 14 states voted for Shirley Chisholm for president, in some fashion or the other.  After six months of campaigning, she had 28 delegates committed to vote for her at the Democratic Convention.  The 1972 Democratic Convention was in July in Miami, and it was the first major convention in which an African American woman was considered for the presidential nomination.  Although she did not win the nomination, she received 151 of the delegates’ votes."

"...Chisholm, whose slogan was 'Unbought and Unbossed,' said she never expected to win but hoped her candidacy would 'change the face and future of American politics'.

'I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male,' she told supporters as she launched her campaign.

'I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbour such narrow and petty prejudice.'"

Chisholm decided in 1982 not to re-run for Congress, citing at the time, so that because she wanted to have a life; however, in later years, such as the Visionary Project's interview, she cited Reagan as the resounding reason for her not re-running. As the nation took a more conservative turn, she became disheartened as the programs she was interested in - welfare, education, minimum wage, women's rights- were no longer at the forefront of the agenda.

"President William J. Clinton nominated Chisholm to be the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she declined due to ill health. Chisholm went on to teach college and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, which represented black women’s concerns.  When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Chisholm said, 'When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change.  I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress.  And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century.  That’s what I want.'" (emphasis added) 

  • "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

  • "Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt."

  • "The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl'."

  • "My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else."

  • "In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing - anti-humanism."

Shirley Chisholm Fun Facts:
  • In the Visionary Project's interview series, Chisholm cites the reason for her and Conrad Chisholm's divorce after 24 years of marriage was because of her getting all the attention and popularity, and that- in the patriarchal times in which she rose- her husband was jealous.
  • "Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents the 13th District of California and is one of 35 African-American women who has served in Congress to date. Congresswoman Lee first met Shirley Chisholm during her presidential race, and ended up volunteering for her. 'She spoke to us in Spanish,' she recalls. 'Then when I said I wanted to work for her she took me to task and made me register to vote first. She told me if I wanted to shake things up, I better get involved in politics.'"