The First of Many

Ashton Carter

Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924 to immigrant parents. Shirley’s parents worked honest jobs but found it hard to work through the systemic discrimination while raising their children. So as a result, Chisholm and her two younger sisters were sent to their maternal grandmother’s house in Barbados in 1929. While some might see her parent’s decision as selfish or uneducated, Shirley grew up knowing that she was loved and that her parents believed in her. In her 1970 autobiography “Unbought and Unbossed”, she wrote: “Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. Shirley and her sisters returned to the states in 1934; as a result of growing up in Barbados Shirley spoke with a West Indian accent her whole life. 

After returning to the states Shirely went to a pristine all girls school. During the time most girls would have married after high school and either been a seamstress or a housewife. Shirley had different plans, she chose to go to college at Brooklyn college to receive her Bachelor of Arts. While at Brooklyn Chisholm was regarded as an excellent debater winning many prizes for this. After graduating Chisholm decided to become a teacher’s aide at a childcare center in Harlem. While teaching in the nursery she sought her masters degree and later graduated from Columbia University with her Masters of Arts. 

In 1964 there was a seat open in the New York state assembly due to one of the members accepting a Judicial appointment. Chisholm faced many hardships in the race to the nomination, not based on her ethnicity but because of her sex. However, she came out victorious and served in the state assembly from 1965-1968. Due to her hard work and dedication to the rights of her people she was selected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York state.

After a court mandated redistricting of New York state’s congressional districts Chisholm saw an opportunity to run in what was now a district composed of many different types of minorities. Chisholm announced her candidacy around January 1968 and established some early organizational support. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and unbossed”. In the June 18, 1968, Democratic primary, Chisholm defeated two other Black opponents, State Senator William S. Thompson and labor official Dollie Robertson. In the general election, she staged an upset victory over James Farmer, the former director of the Congress of Racial Equality who was running as a Liberal Party candidate with Republican support, winning by an approximately two-to-one margin. Chisholm thereby became the first black woman elected to Congress,  and was the only woman in the freshman class that year.

Chisholm began exploring her candidacy in July 1971, and formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn. There she called for a “bloodless revolution” at the forthcoming Democratic nomination convention. Chisholm became the first Black major-party candidate to run for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. In her presidential announcement, Chisholm described herself as representative of the people and offered a new articulation of American identity: “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.”