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First Black US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm Dies at 80

  • Marilyn Silvey

Shirley Chisholm, the first black American woman ever elected to Congress, and the first black person to run for president of the United States, died Saturday at the age of 80.

Shirley Saint Hill Chisholm was the daughter of immigrants, her father was from Guyana and her mother was born in Barbados. Shirley Chisholm was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, a poor area she later represented in Congress. She earned a B.A. degree at Brooklyn College where she won prizes for her skill in debating, which led some of her professors to encourage her to consider a career in politics.

After earning an M.A. in education at Columbia University, Shirley Chisholm taught for several years before entering politics, beginning her political career in the New York state legislature, where she served for four years before moving on to the Congress in 1969.

In 1972, Ms. Chisholm ran in a number of Democratic primary elections for president of the United States. Her share of the vote never exceeded seven percent and at the party's convention she received only some 150 of 1,600 delegate votes, as Senator George McGovern beat out Hubert Humphrey for the nomination.

Ms. Chisholm remained in Congress for 14 years until, in 1982, she announced she would retire, because, she said, of her inability to effect change in a conservative atmosphere. Following her retirement from Congress, she was active in a number of things, including teaching at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, and helping to form a national political organization of black women.

Always a strong fighter for women's rights, Shirley Chisholm often said she experienced more personal discrimination because she was a woman than because she was black.

Ms. Chisholm was not universally admired. Some thought her strident, and she definitely was not a "team player." She wrote her autobiography and entitled it, Unbought and Unbossed. In an interview in 1992, when she was not invited to speak at the Democratic Party convention, Ms. Chisholm said, "It's the same old story. These black politicians have never forgiven me for running for president in 1972. They always thought I was too independent. Whites didn't like me because I didn't tow the line of the downtown masters."

However many Americans respected Ms. Chisholm for her honesty and integrity, and many women appreciated her efforts on their behalf, making it easier for other women to be elected to political office. She was generally on any list of "most influential American women in politics" in the 20th century.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black American woman ever elected to Congress, and the first black person to run for president of the United States, who died Saturday at the age of 80.

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