Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, died on Jan. 1. Cause of death was not released. She was 80.
Born to poor, immigrant parents, Chisholm spent the first half of her childhood living on her grandmother’s farm in Barbados. There she attended a British elementary school and picked up a Caribbean accent. At 11, Chisholm moved back to her parents’ home in Brooklyn and became a star student. She graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College and earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University.
Chisholm taught at a nursery school, ran a day care center and served as an educational consultant with New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare, then she entered the political arena. In 1964, she campaigned on a Democratic platform and won a seat in the New York General Assembly. Four years later, Chisholm was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first black woman to attain such a position of power.
During her seven terms in Washington, Chisholm championed the rights of minorities, women, the poor and veterans. She added diversity and a spirited voice to the white-male dominated halls of Congress. In her first term, she was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee. Knowing such a position would be useless to her urban constituency, Chisholm defied tradition and requested a reassignment. She was eventually given seats on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Education and Labor Committee.
Chisholm was frequently criticized for denouncing the Vietnam War and demanding equal rights for all Americans. In 1972, she angered the establishment by seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Chisholm was the first African-American to conduct a large-scale campaign for the presidency within the two-party system.
Running under the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm sought to draw people into politics who traditionally did not participate in the process. But even her most loyal supporters balked when she visited her rival, former Alabama governor and reformed segregationist George Wallace, in the hospital after an assassin shot him on the campaign trail. Despite their ideological differences, she felt it was the humane thing to do. Wallace appreciated the gesture, and two years later he helped Chisholm get the Congressional support she needed to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers. Although George S. McGovern eventually accepted the party’s nomination, Chisholm received the National Organization for Women’s first presidential endorsement and won a federal court order to participate in the televised debates.
In recent years, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and gave rousing speeches on the lecture circuit. The author of two books (“Unbought and Unbossed,” “The Good Fight”), she was also the subject of a documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Upon her retirement from Congress in 1982, Chisholm was asked how she’d like to be remembered. She said: “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.”