Black History Month: Day 4 – Shirley Chisholm

I give much thanks in my life to hip-hop, which taught me more than most classrooms and inspired me to learn more about history: musical, American, and world history.  My teacher in this instance was the late great five foot MC Phife Dawg, and in ATCQ’s “Baby Phife’s Return,” he put a name in my ear that I felt compelled to explore.

“Writin’ rhymes since Daddy Kane and Biz Mark was on Prism
I got a brave heart like the one named Shirley Chisholm”

Not many people know who Shirley Chisholm is, despite the recency of her accomplishments.  And I certainly never heard her discussed in any classroom I had.  There were a few articles that discussed Mrs. Chisholm’s legacy during our previous election, but still she is not as well known a figure as one would expect of a woman who:
  • became the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress
  • represented New York’s 12th Congressional District (including Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn) for seven terms
  • became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States
  • and became the first woman (of any ethnicity) to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination
Shirley Chisholm

Portrait of Chisholm by Kadir Nelson in the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, and Shirley and her sisters spent many of their elementary school years in Barbados in the care of her grandmother. As a result, Shirley spoke with an unmistakable West Indian accent. Regarding her grandmother, she would state, “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.” As an aside, my grandmother Naomi Snyder gave her children and grandchildren the same things.

Shirley attended Girls’ High School in Bed-Stuy, and earned a Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married her first husband Conrad Chisholm in 1949, and earned her Masters in elementary education from Columbia University while teaching at a nursery school in 1952. Her career was heavily based in education after this: she was director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in lower Manhattan, and from 1959 to 1964 she was an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care. Mrs. Chisholm was known as an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare, and her experience and volunteering efforts with local political groups helped to build the foundation for her political career.

In 1965 Shirley Chisholm was elected to the New York State Assembly. During this time, she helped to get unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers and sponsored a program to provide disadvantaged students the opportunity to enter college while receiving remedial education. In 1968 she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and won, becoming the first Black woman in Congress as well as Brooklyn’s first black member of Congress. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and unbossed,” signaling that she would not bow to pressures and bribery. During her Congressional term, she expanded the food stamp program and helped to create the WIC program (a program that provides nutritional services to 53% of all infants born in the United States). Within her office, every single person hired was a woman, and half of these women were African-American.

Unbought and Unbossed

A campaign poster from Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential bid.

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm made the decision to run for President of the United States, becoming the first black major-party candidate, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. At the time, she told an interviewer, “I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday, it was time in 1972 to make that someday come.” In running, she had hoped that her candidacy would “change the face and future of American Politics.”

While campaigning, Mrs. Chisholm faced many setbacks. Her campaign was poorly organized and underfunded from the start, only spending $300,000 in total. She also faced both racism and sexism, being ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and received little support from her black male colleagues. Black political contemporaries such as Jesse Jackson, and members of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus did not unite to support Shirley Chisholm, choosing to gain political capital by endorsing the major White candidate instead. Shirley was quoted as saying, “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.” Despite this, even feminists such as Gloria Steinem didn’t fully support her, opting in favor for George McGovern, the white male Democratic candidate. Overall, Mrs. Chisholm was not given a fair chance of winning, despite her strong political base and considerable experience.

In the end, Mrs. Chisholm did not win the nomination, and she went back to serve in Congress until 1981. She eventually became the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. Sadly, she left this world in 2005, leaving this world poorer without her. However, her legacy has brought us our first black President and nearly brought us our first female president.

Shirley Chisholm, I salute your courage and strength in the face of adversity and disrespect. If I was alive and able to vote back in 1972, I would be proud to say that “I’m With Her!” I advise anyone interested in learning more about her to read her biography Unbought and Unbossed.

Tune in tomorrow for more Travelbox History Corner. And please leave a message in the comments! I love to hear feedback on what you think of this series or any of my inspirations.


Adetlba, Liz. “Hillary Clinton’s Complex Embodiment Of Shirley Chisholm’s Legacy.” Huffington Post, 2016. Web. 4 February 2017.

“Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.” Tekuret, 2016. Web. 4 February 2017.

“Shirley Chisholm.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 4 February 2017.

Landers, Jackson, “When Shirley Chisholm Ran for President, Few Would Say: ‘I’m With Her.'”, 2016. Web. 4 February 2017.

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