This is the grave of Shirley Chisholm.
Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, Chisholm, then known as Shirley St. Hill, was the daughter of Caribbean immigrants and grew up poor. In 1929, she and her sisters were sent to Barbados to live with their grandmother because their parents could not afford their upkeep. She returned in 1934 with an accent that made her almost impossible to understand for a long time and which she kept for the rest of her amazing life. She always considered herself Barbadian-American and revered the much better education she received on the island than she would have received in Brooklyn. Her talents recognized early, she went to one of the best high schools in Brooklyn and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican immigrant, in 1949. Unlike many women of her time, that was not the end of her education and she received an MA in elementary education from Columbia’s teachers’ college in 1952.
Over the next dozen years, Chisholm worked in education as the director of child care centers in New York. During this time, she became known as an expert on early education and grew in stature within the New York political establishment and a force to be reckoned with. She ran for State Assembly in 1964 and won, serving from 1965 until 1968. In Albany, she continued working on early childhood issues and also sponsored a bill extending unemployment benefits to domestic workers.
In 1968, Chisholm won election to Congress after a court-mandated reapportionment to create a black-majority district in Brooklyn. She was expected to lose in the general to CORE leader James Farmer, who was running as the Liberal Party candidate with Republican support, but her grassroots politics and legendary “Unbought and Unbossed” slogan put her over the top with ease. This made her the first black woman elected to Congress. She was dissed immediately, when she was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, an assignment that had no relevance to her constituents. But she took advantage of the situation and became a major advocate for expanding the food stamp program and using agricultural surpluses to feed the poor. She also played a key role in creating WIC and thus assured that mothers and babies would have nutritious food. After she provided key support to Hale Boggs in his bid to become House Majority Leader, Boggs repaid her by placing her on the Education and Labor Committee, where she wanted to be. She fought hard for government-funded childcare and introduced the House bill, along with Bella Abzug. The less robust Senate bill shepherded by Walter Mondale became the final bill and still would have created a huge new social benefit, but it was vetoed by Richard Nixon, the Last True Liberal President Unlike That Neoliberal Sellout Barack Obama. If only we could relive those days!
Chisholm decided to run for president in 1972. In we are honest with ourselves, this was never a serious campaign in terms of having a shot to win the nomination. She only raised $300,000 for the whole effort and had no organization. But she wanted to make several points. She wanted to be both the first African-American to contest a major party’s nomination, but also the first woman. She believed she faced at least as much discrimination in politics because of her gender as her race. She received very little support for her presidential run from black male politicians and she believed this was because they were scared of her challenging their patriarchy. She skipped several primaries and never performed better than 4th place, in California. She did receive quite a few votes at the convention because Hubert Humphrey released his black delegates to her after it was clear George McGovern would win the nomination. But her run was inspiring to many women, African-Americans, and left-liberals and she has taken on an influence as a hero on the left to the present.
One of her first moves after the 1972 primary run was to reach out to George Wallace, of all people. He later helped her round up votes from southern congressmen for her bill to expand the minimum wage to domestic workers. She became increasingly frustrated with the decline of liberalism under Carter and then Reagan, even as she pushed for a wide swath of new liberal legislation that would particularly help inner city residents. Although by now a respected veteran of the House in the leadership as a Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, Chisholm announced that she would not run for reelection in 1982, a decision influenced by the failing health of her second husband, a Buffalo liquor store owner. She taught at Mount Holyoke for a few years. Bill Clinton nominated her as ambassador to Jamaica, but she had to turn this down due to her own health. She retired to Florida, where she died in 2005 after suffering a series of strokes.
…Meant to include a couple of videos of Chisholm.
Here is her address declaring her presidential bid.
Here she is reflecting on the oppression she faced as the first black female member of Congress.
Finally, here’s a long address she gave at UCLA in May 1972.
Shirley Chisholm is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.