Shirley Chisholm Biography

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill, November 30, 1924, in New York, NY; died after a series of strokes, January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, FL. Politician. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman ever elected to serve in the United States Congress. Fiercely dedicated to her constituents and outspoken in her commitment to social justice, Chisholm served 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, and was one of the most well-known women in America in her time. She even made a symbolic bid for the White House in 1972, and earned a surprisingly strong show of support during her campaign.

Born in 1924 and named Shirley Anita St. Hill, Chisholm spent her first years in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, but her clipped West Indian accent came from a childhood in Barbados. Chisholm's mother, a domestic servant and seamstress, was originally from the island nation, and her Guyana-born father worked at a factory that produced burlap sacks. All four St. Hill daughters were sent to live with their maternal grandmother so that their parents might save money for their education. Chisholm returned to New York at the age of eleven, and never lost her lilting accent.

The investment by Chisholm's parents in her future was well spent. She excelled in school, and at Brooklyn College as well. Known for her strong debating skills, in another time and place she might have earned a law degree, but instead Chisholm became a nursery-school teacher when she graduated. She went on to receive a master's degree from Columbia University, and spent her pre-political career as a teacher, early-education expert, and employee of the child welfare bureau in New York City. By the late 1950s, she had become active in Democratic Party politics in her local Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.

In 1964, Chisholm ran for and won a seat representing her locality in the New York State Assembly. Four years later, she made her historic bid for Congress from Brooklyn's 12th Congressional District. The district was tightly controlled by the powerful Brooklyn Democratic Party machine, and she was not the first choice to stand for the election, considered a shoo-in for any Democratic candidate since District's number of Democratic registered voters topped 80 percent. She entered the Democratic primary anyway, and bested her heavily favored opponent with the campaign slogan, "Unbought and unbossed."

The number of female or African-American legislators in the U.S. House was still disproportionately small at the time, which made Chisholm's achievement all the more remarkable. She met with a frosty reception from her fellow lawmakers, however, but began to make her own way in the Capitol. She joined two other African-American members of the House, Louis Stokes of Ohio and Missourian William L. Clay, to found the Congressional Black Caucus, which later became a potent political force in American politics. Her assignments included stints on the Veterans' Affairs, Education, and Labor committees.

Chisholm was blunt in her criticism for the policies of Republican President Richard M. Nixon, especially regarding the controversial continuance of sending American troops to Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War. She also supported new civil-rights legislation as well as equal-rights protection for American women. A household name in America by 1972, Chisholm decided to make a bid for the Democratic Party presidential ticket. She admitted her chances were slim, but gained support during the campaign and made impressive showings in a few state primaries. One of the most memorable moments of the campaign, however, was her visit to the hospital room of an Alabama Democrat, George Wallace, who was also running for the party nomination. His campaign, by contrast to hers, exploited racial tensions in America, for Wallace was a noted segregationist. He became the target of an assassination attempt while campaigning, and the gunshot wound put him in a wheel-chair for the rest of his life. Chisholm's visit to him was an attempt to make peace, and "black people in my community crucified me" for it, she later said, according to the New York Times .

Chisholm's constituents forgave her, however, and she continually won reelection. She retired from political life in 1982, when she took a teaching job at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts; the move was also done in order to care for her husband, Arthur Hardwick, a Buffalo, New York-area politician and business owner who had been injured in a car accident. He died in 1986, and Chisholm moved to Florida five years later, where she spent the remainder of her years. After suffering a series of strokes, she died on New Year's Day in 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida, at the age of 80. According to the New York Times , she recalled that Wallace had also questioned her bold move in visiting him— though all the major candidates had stopped by his hospital room—to which she replied, "I know what they're going to say. But I wouldn't want what happened to you to happen to anyone," the New York Times reported her telling Wallace. "He cried and cried and cried." Sources:, holm.ap/index.html (January 3, 2005); Independent (London), January 4, 2005, p. 28; New York Times , January 4, 2005, p. B9; People , January 17, 2005, p. 108; Washington Post , January 3, 2005, p. A4.

Carol Brennan

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: