Shirley Chisholm

Portrait of Shirley Chisholm
Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for United States President. January 25, 1972.

Thomas O'Halloran, US News & World Report. Library of Congress (Public Domain)

Quick Facts

Significance:
Ran for President of the United States
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
Date of Birth:
November 30, 1924
Place of Death:
Ormond Beach, Florida
Date of Death:
January 1, 2005
Place of Burial:
Buffalo, New York
Cemetery Name:
Forest Lawn Cemetery

Shirley Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents.[1] She was sent to be raised by her grandmother in Barbados as her parents struggled to make ends meet in Brooklyn. About the five years she spent with her grandmother, Shirley said, “Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody.”

In 1934, Shirley returned to Brooklyn, where she finished grade school and high school. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1946. In 1949, she married Conrad Chisholm, who had immigrated to the United States from Jamaica a few years earlier. In 1952, she completed her Master’s degree in elementary education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

After graduating, she spent from 1953 to 1964 working in early childhood education, becoming an authority on issues of early education and child welfare. It was during this time that she became interested in politics, becoming involved with white-dominated political groups in Brooklyn, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, and the League of Women Voters.  

In 1964 Shirley was elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 1965 through 1968. By early 1966, she was a leader in the efforts by the Council of Elected Negro Democrats to increase Black representation in the various committees of the State Assembly.

The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, Chisholm ran under the campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.” She represented New York’s 12th Congressional District from 1969 to 1983. Early in her Congressional service, Chisholm was assigned to serve on the House Agricultural Committee where she played an important role in expanding the food stamp program and the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

In 1971, Shirley Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was elected to a position of House Democratic leadership, serving as the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus from 1977 to 1981.

During her Congressional service, Shirley Chisholm began to consider running for President. On January 25, 1972 she announced her candidacy, becoming the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to vie for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party (Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman in the running for nomination as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate in 1964). She ran into extensive opposition as both a woman and a Black person, and struggled to be seen as a serious candidate. She said that she ran for office “in spite of hopeless odds…to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” She did not win the Democratic Party nomination; that went to George McGovern.

She left politics in 1983. From 1983 to 1987, Chisholm taught politics and sociology at Mount Holyoke and Spelman College, as well as giving speeches across the country urging people to not succumb to intolerance, and to get involved in local politics. She retired to Florida in 1991.

Shirley Chisholm died at age 80. Her epitaph reads, “Unbought and Unbossed.”

In November 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Shirley Chisholm the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian award of the United States. The medal is awarded to those who have made especially noteworthy contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant endeavors.

In 2018, the State of New York and the National Park Service announced the development of the Shirley Chisholm State Park, part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

[1] Her father, Charles Christopher St. Hill, was born in Guyana in the Caribbean when it was still under British rule as British Guiana. Her mother, Ruby Seale, was from Barbados.

References:
Landers, Jackson. “Unbought and Unbossed: When a Black Woman Ran for the White House.” Smithsonian Magazine, April 25, 1016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/unbought-and-unbossed-when-black-woman-ran-for-the-white-house-180958699/

United States House of Representatives. “Chisholm, Shirley Anita” History, Art & Archives. http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CHISHOLM,-Shirley-Anita-(C000371)/

Last updated: March 19, 2019