Shirley Chisholm, educator and trailblazing politician.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924, to immigrant parents. She was of Guyanese and Bajan descent. Charles St. Hill was a laborer who worked in a factory that made burlap bags and as a baker's helper. Ruby St. Hill was a skilled seamstress and domestic worker, and had trouble working and raising the children at the same time. So, in November 1929 when Shirley turned five, she and her two sisters were sent to Barbados on the MS Vulcania to live with their maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale. She later said, "Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn't need the black revolution to tell me that." Ms. St. Hill and her sisters lived on their grandmother's farm in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church, where she attended a one-room schoolhouse. She returned to the United States on May 19, 1934, aboard the SS Nerissa in New York. As a result of her time in Barbados, Shirley spoke with a West Indian accent throughout her life. In her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, she 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." As a result of her time on the island, and regardless of her U.S. birth, St. Hill would always consider herself a Barbadian American.
Beginning in 1939, St. Hill attended Girls' High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a highly regarded, integrated school that attracted girls from throughout Brooklyn. Ms. St. Hill earned her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1946, where she won prizes for her debating skills. In addition, during her time at Brooklyn College, she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society. As a member of the Harriet Tubman Society, Chisholm advocated for inclusion, specifically in terms of the integration of black soldiers in the military during World War II, the addition of courses that focused on African-American history, and the involvement of more women in the student government. However, this was not her first introduction to activism or politics. Growing up, Chisholm was surrounded by politics as her father was an avid supporter of Marcus Garvey and a dedicated supporter of the rights of trade union members. Also, she was no stranger to seeing her community advocate for their rights as she witnessed the Barbados workers' and anti-colonial independence movements.
Ms. St. Hill met Conrad O. Chisholm in the late 1940s. He had migrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1946 and later became a private investigator who specialized in negligence-based lawsuits. They were married in 1949 in a large West Indian-style wedding.
She attended Brooklyn College and Columbia University earning degrees in education. She worked in day care for ten years, but became interested in politics and joined local chapters of several organizations to fight gender and racial inequality. From 1965 to 1968, she served in the New York State Assembly. In 1968, she was elected as the first black woman to serve in Congress. “Fighting Shirley” introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation to fight gender and racial inequality and poverty.
In 1972, she became the first woman and black American to seek major party nomination for president. After retiring from in Congress in 1983 she returned to teaching and remained active in women’s and African American social causes until she died in 2005. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2019, Senator Kamala Harris held a phone bank for her presidential campaign on Chisholm’s birthday, calling it the Shirley Chisholm Day of Action, showing how the pioneering Chisholm continues to inspire women to this day.
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