“Smart and sassy.”
That is how former New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell described Brooklyn native Shirley Chisholm when she strolled into the nation’s political arena 54 years ago and became the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Four years later in 1972, with her feistiness in overdrive, the lone woman among the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus became the Democratic Party’s first woman nominee for President of the United States.
Then New York mayor John Lindsay and George McGovern, both also 1972 Democratic presidential nominees, urged Chisholm to withdraw. She didn’t. Chisholm angered her fellow Black Caucus members for not informing them privately of her presidential bid. “None of them supported her,” Caldwell said.
“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud,” said Chisholm, announcing her candidacy. “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 symbolize a new era in American political history.”
Her shoestring campaign fizzled from the start. She received less than three percent of the 16 million votes cast. Despite the loss, Chisholm felt a sense of accomplishment. “The next time a woman of whatever color, or a dark-skinned person of whatever sex aspires to be president, the way should be a little smoother because I helped pave it,” she said.
After retiring from politics following a seven-term Congressional career, Chisholm retired to Palm Coast, Florida, in 1991 and became active in several community activities.
Later this month, the Democratic Women of Flagler County, in alliance with the City of Palm Coast, will honor the former Congresswoman, who died in 2005, by officially renaming the Pine Lakes Parkway’s walking path to the Shirley Chisholm Trail. The “Trail for a Political Trailblazer” dedication service will be held November 30, 2022, at 10 a.m. across the street from the Pine Lakes Golf Course.
“We must keep her philosophy in mind,” said Agnes Lightfoot, 2nd vice-president of the Democratic Party’s Women’s Club. “Fifty years after her presidential campaign, we are still facing the same challenges she fought … voting rights, eradicating poverty and dismantling gender stereotypes.”
Chisholm’s journey to “smarts and sassiness” began at an early age. When she turned 5 years of age, her immigrant parents – Charles St. Hill, a laborer and Ruby St. Hill, a seamstress/domestic worker — sent her and two sisters to live with their grandmother, Emaline Seale, in Barbados. They attended elementary school there for five years then returned to Brooklyn. “Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love,” Chisholm said. “I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn’t need the black revolution to tell me that.”
In her 1970 autobiography, ‘Unbought and Unbossed,’ Chisholm 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. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason.”
Chisholm earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1946, graduating cum laude and a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1951.
Former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and vice-president Kamala Harris are among dozens of U.S. leaders who have praised Chisholm’s exceptional courage and service as a seven-term congressional leader (1969-1983). In 2015, Obama awarded her posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. In a 2019 interview, Harris said of Chisholm: “She reminds me of the many sayings of my mother … ‘Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.’ That was Shirley Chisholm … I stand as so many of us do on her shoulders.”
Though proud of being recognized as “a catalyst of change,” Chisholm didn’t always relish the praise she received. “That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black, and a woman proves, I would think, that our society is not yet either just or free.” she said. “ … I hope if I am remembered it will finally be for what I have done, not for what I happen to be.”
Chisholm met Conrad O. Chisholm, of Jamaica, her first husband in the late 1940s. They were married in 1949 in a large West Indian-style wedding. He died in 1977. Her second husband, Arthur Hardwick, Jr., died in 1986.
At her funeral, held at the First AME Church of Palm Coast, Pastor Gillard Glover noted that Chisholm had brought about change because “she showed up, she stood up and she spoke up.”