Shirley Chisholm: Everything You Didn't Know About The First Black Congresswoman

By | November 16, 2020

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African-American educator and U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm speaks at a podium at the Democratic National Convention, Miami Beach, Florida, July 1972. (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

As you appreciate the latest political achievements of women of color, take a moment to recognize the glass ceiling– and color barrier–shattering life of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve Congress in the United States. Her election to the House of Representatives in 1968 came in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and drew attention to the social limitations imposed on both African-Americans and women.

Brooklyn And Barbados

On November 30, 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill became the first of four daughters born to immigrants from Barbados who met and wed in New York City in the early 1920s. The long hours the St. Hills worked—Charles St. Hill was a factory laborer and bakery assistant when Chisholm was young, while his wife was a seamstress—made it difficult to raise and educate their children, so when she was just five years old, Chisholm was sent with her sisters to live with their grandmother in Barbados, where she attended a traditional British-style school.

Once she moved back to the United States in 1939, Shirley Chisholm enrolled in an integrated all-girls' high school in Brooklyn that had a reputation as the top school in the borough. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College, where she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society, advocated for racial inclusion, and earned awards for her debating skills. After she graduated in 1946, she took a teaching job, later earning a master's degree from Columbia University. In 1949, she married Conrad O. Chisholm, an immigrant from Jamaica. 

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Chisholm reviewing political statistics in 1965. (Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Wikimedia Commons)

Politics And Activism

Charles St. Hill actively followed politics, and Shirley learned its nuances from him at an early age through the lively discussions and debates he had with his daughters. As a university student, she showed a keen perception of politics and a passion for activism, and many of her professors urged her to consider making it a career. Chisholm didn't yet believe that a black woman in America could have any success in the field, but that didn't completely stop her from lending her support to the causes of racial and gender equality. She joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, and the Brooklyn Democratic Party Club.

In 1962, she campaigned for Thomas R. Jones in his bid to become Brooklyn's second black assemblyman, but when Jones decided not to seek reelection and accept a judicial appointment instead, she ran for his seat and won. She served as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965 to 1968, during which time she pushed to repeal the state's requirement for voters to pass an English literacy state, convinced the legislature to include domestic workers in unemployment benefits, and initiated programs to help disadvantaged students get into college.