Shirley Chisolm was a teacher, author, and one of the first women to showcase the next wave of practical Civil Rights in American Government. To understand how this icon, known for being the first African-American woman to run for President of the United States, became a political force, you must understand a little about who she was growing up.
Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924 to Barbadian immigrant parents. At a young age up until she was about twelve years old, she lived with her grandmother in Barbados. When she returned to America, she knew very little about American history and geography, so she was placed in the third grade even though she was supposed to be in the sixth grade. Chisholm resented being with children two to three years younger than her because she could read and write better than them so instead of learning at their pace she occupied herself by getting in trouble. The principals and teachers noticed the behavior and decided to get her extra help in the two subjects, so she could excel to the right grade. Attending an almost all-white school in a predominantly white neighborhood, Shirley wasn’t aware of racial prejudice because her parents’ love helped her love herself (Scheader).
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Years later, Chisholm and her family moved into an apartment in a more predominantly black neighborhood. She heard racial slurs from white children for the first time, but she tried not to pay attention to it so instead she spent more time on her homework and studied harder. Shirley graduated from the neighborhood middle school in 1939 and started high school, Girls’ High, that was a bus ride away. She was elected as vice-president for the honor society club and won the French medal at graduation. She received scholarship offers from Vassar College and Oberlin College for her excellent academic record, but she did not except them because she wanted to go to a college her parents could afford. September 1942, she enrolled at Brooklyn College, one of five excellent, tuition-free colleges (Scheader 15-19)
Like many other college students, Chisholm became aware of what was really going on in society. For example, there were black men risking their lives for America during World War II but when they returned home, they were still subjected to racism. Many of Chisholm’s college activities sparked her interest in the political field. Her and a bunch of the other few black students started a group called the Harriet Tubman Society. They discussed the effects political events had on black people and followed current news around the city and the country (Scheader 22).
Tubman Societies began to attend neighborhood meetings where they learned how local groups had influenced the decisions made for the city government. During those meetings, Shirley noticed how the black people would rarely stand and demand for services they were entitled to, in fear of those who controlled their lives. At one of them, Shirley stood up after the sanitation commissioner’s speech and asked why Bedford-Stuyvesant was being treated different the white neighborhoods. She went to more meetings and began to feel more confident in making a point to ask questions, which encouraged the neighborhood people to follow her lead. Shirley graduated from Brooklyn College with a degree in sociology (Scheader 27).
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After graduating, Shirley became a teacher and earned her master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. Chisholm served as an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare until 1964 (Biography). She ran and became the second African American in the New York State Legislature in 1964 and four years later, Chisholm became the first African American Congresswoman. During her time in office she championed racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center). Chisholm’s quest for the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination was corrupted with discrimination. She was only permitted to make one speech and was blocked from participating in televised primary debates. With the help of the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus, she entered twelve primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes. In 1983, Chisholm retired from Congress and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women (Michals).
Chisholm’s importance in American history cannot be overstated. Her life experience showed us that the personal can become political. She was a force in politics because her message was real and practical. Chisholm paved the way for not only our first African American President of the United States but also for the first woman to be endorsed by a major political party. It’s an inspiration to students to learn that it is important to look at the things around them and try to change what they can do to make their world a better place.
- Biography. Shirley Chisholm Biography. 22 January 2020. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/shirley-chisholm. 7 February 2020.
- Michals, Debra. Shirley Chisholm. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm. 14 February 2020.
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Shirley Chisholm. 13 February 2020. https://freedomcenter.org/content/shirley-chisholm. 13 February 2020.
- Scheader, Catherine. Shirley Chisholm Teacher and Congresswoman. Hillside: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1990.
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