She was born in Brooklyn in 1924 to immigrant parents — her father, an unskilled laborer who sometimes worked in a factory that made burlap bags and other times worked as a baker’s helper; her mother, a skilled seamstress and domestic worker. Due to the demands of work there was little time to raise children. Shirley, at the age of five, along with her sisters was sent back to her mother’s home of Barbados to live with her grandmother. She attended a one room schoolhouse. Shirley reflected, “Years later I would know what an important gift my parents gave me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados.”
At the age of 10, she returned to the United States. After she graduated with a Masters in elementary education, she directed Child Care Centers and worked as an educational consultant. She become an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare.
1968 was a dark year in our history. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on the campaign trail. The Democratic convention was overtaken by furious protestors. Richard Nixon, the only president to ever resign from office, won the election. There was one bright spot in the year 1968. Shirley Chisholm, a children’s educator from Brooklyn, became the first black woman in congress. On this notorious day in history, her victory went practically unnoticed due to all the tragedy that was unfolding. When Shirley arrived in Washington, people took note!
The news media reported, “In the 12th district of New York a school teacher was elected to congress.” The 12th district was described as a solid urban slum. To her surprise she was placed on an agricultural committee. The first thing she did was speak out publicly against the leaders in congress who gave her the assignment. This got the media’s attention. In that day and time, people did what the party leaders told them to do. There wasn’t even a process for not doing what you were told. That didn’t stop Shirley Chisholm. She made history by challenging her first committee assignment. “We don’t have cotton fields or hogs in the 12th district.” She was the first freshman congressman to have her assignment changed.
Shirley credited her grandmother for giving her a sense of her own identity. “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.” From the moment she arrived in Washington, she was a force to reckoned with. Her nickname was “fighting Shirley.” From 1977 to 1981, Chisholm was elected to the prestigious position in the House leadership, as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. She had earned the respect of her fellow members of Congress.
Everyone Shirley hired for her office were women. Chisholm said that she had faced much more discrimination during her New York legislative career because she was a woman than because of her race. She was an outspoken advocate for women and minorities during her seven terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Running with the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” Shirley formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn. Chisholm became the first black major-party candidate to run for President of the United States, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. In her Presidential announcement, Chisholm describes herself as representative of the people: "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 knew that she did not have the support of the white male political power and she made that her advantage — the candidate of the people.
Upon retirement, after 14 years in Congress, she was asked how she wanted to be remembered, “I don’t want to be remembered as the first black women in congress. I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.” Chisholm is buried in a Mausoleum in Buffalo, where the inscription on her vault reads: "Unbought and Unbossed".
After her death in 2005, Congress commissioned a portrait of her. That is an honor reserved for party leadership. Shirley continues to tower in the Halls of Congress. Today, the most diverse and female congress ever stands on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm (as well as under her portrait for selfies).
Shirley Chisholm, you had guts!