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Catalyst of Change: Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 30, 1924, the oldest of four children immigrant parents Charles and Ruby. Chisholm showed academic excellence and charisma from an early age. She attended Brooklyn Girls’ High in 1942 and Brooklyn College where she graduated cum laude in 1946, where she won awards for her prowess on debate team. At the time professors encouraged her to consider a career in politics, however she rejected their suggestions saying she faced a “double handicap” being both Black and female. However, she didn’t let that hold her back for long.

Chisholm began her career working as a nursery school teacher. In 1951, she earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in early childhood education. Ever aware of racial and gender inequality, she joined local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, as well as the Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

In 1964, Chisholm ran for and became the second African American in the New York State Legislature. Then four years later, she sought – and won- a seat in Congress. It was there she earned her nickname “Fighting Shirley”. “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing,” she said. “I intend to focus attention on the nation’s problems.” Chisholm introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation; championing both gender and racial equality, speaking up for low income families, and ending the Vietnam War. In 1971 she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and in 1977 became the first Black woman to serve in the House Rules Committee. Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a New York State legislator.

In 1972 Chisholm, once again serving as a trailblazer, became the first Black woman to run for President. Campaigning across the country she was able to get her name on 12 primary ballots, gaining her notoriety and popular support. However, Chisholm faced many challenges during her campaign. She was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech. Ultimately, Chisholm’s campaign failed to seat her in the White House. But this did not derail her passion for speaking up for people. She served ten more years before retiring from Congress in 1983.

Later in life Chisholm and her husband would move to Buffalo, eventually calling Williamsville their home. She passed away in 2005 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Birchwood Mausoleum. Today you can find her tomb engraved with her personal slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.” However, the people of New York didn’t find this tribute fitting for the legacy Chisholm left behind.

That is why, in 2021, State Senator Sean Ryan announced that local artist Julia Bottoms would design a statue to be placed near Chisholm’s final resting place.

“Bottoms’ concept is designed to evoke emotion and inspire reflection through a series of elements that reference Chisholm’s life and legacy. It features Chisholm standing before a podium adorned with the 1972 Democratic National Convention’s seal, with her hand raised high in the air displaying a peace sign. On the side of the podium is a plaque featuring Chisholm’s famous quote: If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair. Propped against the side of the podium is a folding chair, providing a symbolic reference to the quote.”


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