Article abstract: As the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first to run as a candidate for the presidency, Shirley Chisholm has been an outspoken advocate for women, children, and ethnic minorities.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in 1924 in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn to West Indian emigrants, Charles Christopher St. Hill and Ruby Seale St. Hill. Seeking relief from the 1920 famine that besieged their Caribbean home on the island of Barbados, both parents migrated to New York City. Unable to save enough money from her work as a seamstress in the garment district or his work as an unskilled laborer in a burlap bag factory, the St. Hills sent three-year-old Shirley, along with her two younger sisters, Muriel and Odessa, back to Barbados to live on a farm with their maternal grandmother, Emmeline Seale.
The next seven years under the stern, disciplined eye of Grandma Seale, a towering woman who was more than six feet tall, shaped Shirley’s compassion and concern for the well-being of others and further strengthened her understanding that commitment to one’s principles, while rewarding, might be a lonely existence. The foundation of Shirley’s future academic success would be based on the structured academic environment of the British-styled schools of Barbados.
The transition back into American life in 1934 at the height of the Depression was difficult for eleven-year-old Shirley. The meager resources of the St. Hill family were further divided with the arrival of baby sister Selma. The stark contrast between the warm, balmy climate of Barbados as compared to the harsh cold reality of New York winters made the adjustment even more painful.
The family moved from the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville to the more ethnically diverse community of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. This half- black neighborhood would help sharpen Shirley’s developing political awareness, especially as the economic conditions of the neighborhood worsened.
Shirley’s fertile teenage mind was challenged by the daily lectures and discussions with her father, a largely self-educated man. Charles St. Hill, a voracious reader, daily devoured several publications. Like many working-class blacks, he was an avid follower of the charismatic Pan-Africanist leader, Marcus Garvey. Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which promoted racial pride and encouraged self-sufficiency, was one of the most important political, cultural black movements during the early part of the twentieth century in America.
Upon returning to the New York school system, Shirley was held back in a lower grade because of her ignorance of U.S. civic history. After receiving tutoring lessons, she was promoted to her appropriate grade level and quickly surpassed the efforts of many of her classmates. Chisholm would always retain one trait from her years in the Caribbean—a slight, melodious West Indian accent. A petite young woman, Chisholm soon learned that her size tended to disguise her surprisingly forceful, straightforward manner.
Upon graduation from high school, Shirley received offers to attend college at Vassar and Oberlin. Because of her family’s limited economic resources and her own desire to remain close to home, however, she accepted a scholarship to study sociology at Brooklyn College. Shirley’s involvement in several campus organizations and the debating society caught the attention of one Brooklyn College professor, who encouraged her to pursue a political career. In the end, Chisholm chose to become a teacher, a more realistic career choice for African American women of her day.
In 1946, she graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College with a degree in social work. She immediately began work on a masters degree in elementary education at Columbia University’s night school. During the day, she was employed at a local nursery school. At about this time, she met a recent Jamaican transplant, Conrad Chisholm, who was working as a waiter. They were married on October 8, 1950, and settled in Brooklyn. Conrad returned to school and then became an investigator for the New York City Department of Hospital Services.
For the next several years, Shirley worked for a number of schools, including Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville and the Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem. From 1953 to 1959, she served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in Lower Manhattan. She further distinguished herself as a bilingual educator, because of her ability to communicate fluently in Spanish. Gradually, her reputation as a leading early-childhood specialist spread, resulting in increased demands for her services as a consultant to such organizations as the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare.
Shirley Chisholm’s growing interest in the political world began in the mid-1950’s when she stepped up her involvement in several organizations, including the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Democratic Women’s Workshop, and the League of Women Voters. The organization that most directly sparked Chisholm’s activism was the Seventeenth Assembly District Democratic Club. She became active in the district’s party politics after meeting an old college associate, Wesley Holder. Holder had carved out a reputation for getting black candidates elected while still remaining loyal to the white-dominated Democratic party agenda. Shirley’s distaste...
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