Shirley St. Hill Chisholm was the first in many important fields – she was the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, and in 1972 she became the first black candidate to run for President of the USA, which made her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
St. Hill was born in 1924 into a disadvantaged family. She had two sisters, and the family was mainly supported by her mother, who worked as a seamstress. Finding it hard to work constantly along with her husband and to raise three little children, Shirley’s mother send the girls to Barbados to live with their maternal mother.
Later in her life, Shirley referred to her years in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church, where she lived for six years, as the most intellectually stimulating time of her life. She was grateful because she had the opportunity to be educated in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados.
In her 1970 autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed,” Shirley 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.”
In 1934, Shirley returned to the States, and in 1939 she enrolled Girls’ High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and 1946 she graduated as Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College. During her college years, Shirley won prizes for her debating skills and was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946, she began her career as a teacher and went on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. In 1949, St. Hill got married to Conrad O. Chisholm, who later become a private investigator who specialized in negligence-based lawsuits.
Shirley was a tireless and ambitious worker. For six years, from 1953 to 1959, she was the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center. In 1959, she became an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare until 1964. During this time she became interested in politics.
From 1965 to 1968, Shirley was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly. During this time, she succeeded in extending unemployment benefits to domestic workers, and she enforced a SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) which provided a college education for disadvantaged students.
In 1968, Shirley made history by being elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State and became the first African-American congresswoman. In 1969, she became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1972, she became the first major-party African-American candidate to run for the Democratic nomination for the US presidency. Even though her running for the presidency was more perceived as symbolic and she didn’t even get enough financial support for the campaign, she worked on being regarded as a serious candidate.
She didn’t get much support and later said that “When I ran for the Congress when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”
Shirley got divorced in 1977 and married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a former New York State Assemblyman. A few years later, in 1982, due to her dissatisfaction with the liberal politics in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, Shirley retired from Congress. In 1983, she started teaching at Mount Holyoke College and was popular on the lecture circuit. She was still active and prospered in her career until 1991 when she retired and moved to Florida.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she had to refuse the offer because of her poor health. That same year she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. After suffering several strokes, Shirley died in 2005.
She was buried in the Oakwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, where the legend inscribed on her vault reads: “Unbought and Unbossed.”