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Saturday, April 4, 2020

This week in black history: Shirley Chisholm

The life of the first African American woman to win a seat in Congress and her daring run for president

By Kayna Dean

Early Life

Shirley Chisholm was an African American woman from Brooklyn, N.Y. She was born in 1924 and raised during the Great Depression. She was the oldest daughter of four to her parents, who worked as a factory worker and a seamstress. While her parents tried to make a living during the Depression, Chisholm attended a British school in Barbados and

Shirley Anita Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress.

then graduated from high school in Brooklyn with exceptional grades. She eventually went on to receive a bachelor’s in sociology from Brooklyn College and a master’s in early childhood education from Columbia University.

A Career in Politics

After working for a few years as a nursery school teacher and later as an education consultant for the New York City Division of Daycare, Chisholm moved on to a career in politics. To help combat racism in the 1960s, she joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). But racism wasn’t her only adversity. “I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black,” she said.

Her involvement with groups like the NAACP encouraged her to run for New York State Legislature. Chisholm won and became the second African American in New York to do so. Four years later, she became the first African American woman to win a seat in Congress. Some of the things Chisholm did during her 15 years in Congress include fighting to end the Vietnam War and addressing inequalities in race and gender.

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm at Youth Dialog Program, 1970. // CaptJayRuffins via Creative Commons

A Daring Run for Presidency

In 1972, Chisholm ran as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, becoming the first African American to seek nomination from a major political party.

“I’m running for president because I want to win. And I want to govern,” she said during her campaign. “And I want to change the direction of this country.”

However, America wasn’t ready for woman president, let alone a black one. She faced a lot of discrimination during her campaign, including being blocked from the televised primaries. She also wasn’t allowed to participate in political debates, constantly received death threats and wasn’t taken seriously by many. Despite those issues, along with an under-funded campaign, Chisholm got 10% of the delegates’ votes.

After Her Years in Congress

Chisholm retired in 1983, after spending 15 years in Congress. She later co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and moved to Florida for health reasons. In 2015, nearly 10 years after her death, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.



“CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, US House of Representatives, http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CHISHOLM,-Shirley-Anita-%28C000371%29/

Kazmi, Laila, and Stephen Hegg. “What Former Presidential Candidate Shirley Chisholm Said About Facing Gender Discrimination.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 13 Sept. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/what-former-presidential-candidate-shirley-chisholm-said-about-facing-gender-discrimination.

“Shirley Chisholm.” National Women’s History Museum, National Women’s History Museum, 2015, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm.


Every week in February, a Western Front reporter will discuss a person or event important  to black history in recognition of Black History Month.


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