After California senator Kamala Harris announced that she was seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for the White House, some commentators pointed out a historical parallel to another famous African American female politician. Nearly 50 years ago, on January 25, 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her own presidential candidacy. Chisholm, a writer and educator, was the first woman to run for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. She was also the first African American candidate to seek a major party’s nomination to the White House.
Kamala Harris is a vocal admirer of Shirley Chisholm; she once penned an essay about Chisholm’s powerful legacy. Harris has reportedly modeled her campaign logo on graphics used by Shirley Chisholm. But the similarities may run deeper than that. Like Harris, Chisholm was the daughter of immigrants and had ties to the Caribbean; she was also a highly educated woman who credited her extended family with teaching her the importance of strength, dignity, and love. Like Harris, Chisholm described herself as a “fighter” and a straight talker. And, like Harris, Chisholm launched her presidential campaign just a few years after winning a seat in the US Congress.
Here’s what you need to know about Shirley Chisholm:
1. Chisholm’s Parents Came to the US from the Caribbean & She Spent Years of Her Childhood in Barbados, Where She Said She Learned Pride, “Spunk,” & Dignity
Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St Hill in Brooklyn, New York in 1924. Her father, Charles, was a factory worker from British Guiana, and her mother, Ruby, was a seamstress from Barbados. Shirley had three younger sisters. When she was three years old, she and her sisters were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Emily Seale, in Barbados; they remained in Barbados until Chisholm was at least nine years old. Their grandmother, Emily Seale, owned a small farm near Christ Church, and all the girls were given daily chores to do in addition to their studies. Chisholm was in charge of taking sheep to pasture, milking cows, and delivering firewood.
Chisholm described her grandmother as firm but loving, and said that she received an excellent education in Barbados. She has credited the strict, British-style system of education with teaching her to write and speak with ease. She also praised her maternal grandmother with teaching her the values of strength, dignity, and love. “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,” Chisholm told the New York Times back in 1972.
Chisholm has said that once they returned to Brooklyn, she and all four of her siblings were high achievers who received academic scholarships; she says this is because of their early upbringing in Barbados. She also credits those years in Barbados with giving her the “spunk” needed to take on established order in the US. “My early life on the island gave me the spirit, the spunk, that was necessary to challenge all the age-old traditions. I’m not afraid of anybody,” Chisholm told The Visionary Project.
2. Her First Husband Was a Private Investigator from Jamaica & Her Second Husband Was a State Legislator
In 1949, Shirley married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator who was born in Jamaica. By that time, Shirley was 25 years old and had already graduated from college. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and, after graduating, she was accepted to Vassar and to Oberlin. She opted to attend Brooklyn College, where she won a full scholarship, earning a BA in sociology in 1946. After graduation, she went to work as a nursery school teacher and a director of daycare centers. In 1952, Chisholm earned an MA in early childhood education from Columbia University; she eventually went to work for New York City’s Division of Day Care as a consultant, before she was elected to the New York State legislature in 1964.
Shirley and Conrad Chisholm divorced in the Dominican Republic in 1977. Six months later, she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr. Hardwick was a one-time state legislator; he and Chisolm met in Albany, when they were both legislators. Hardwick also owned a liquor store in Buffalo. He was a widower when he married Chisholm. Several hundred guests, including local politicians and Republican Representative Jack Kemp, attended the wedding reception in Buffalo.
In 1982, Chisholm told the Christian Science Monitor that she would not seek re-election, because, she said, she wanted to spend more time with Hardwick after he was injured in a car accident. Chisholm never had children.
3. Chisholm Ran for Congress Under the Slogan ‘Unbought & Unbossed’
In 1969, Chisholm became the first African American woman to serve in the US Congress, representing a district that included her own Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn. Chisholm campaigned under the slogan “unbought and unbossed” and called herself “fighting Shirley Chisholm.” Her campaign team drove around in a sound truck that pulled up beside housing projects while Chisholm announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.” Chisholm also used her fluent Spanish to appeal to the growing Puerto Rican population in Brooklyn. She won the general election by a margin of 67 percent.
In Congress, Chisholm became known as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. She was also known for her work on behalf of low-income Americans. She worked to increase federal funding for daycare and pushed for a guaranteed minimum annual income. She also backed a school lunch bill and called for increased federal funding for education. Chisholm was also known for defying her own party’s leadership and following her own path.
4. Chisholm Described Herself as the ‘Candidate of the People of America’ in Her 1972 Presidential Run
In 1972, Chisholm became the first African American woman ever to seek the Democratic nomination to the White House. Her campaign slogan was “unbought and unbossed,” just as it had been when she ran for Congress. You can watch archived footage of Chisholm’s announcement here. You can see one of Chisolm’s campaign posters here.
In announcing her candidacy, Chisholm described herself as the “candidate of the people of America” and denounced what she said was the Nixon administration’s “manipulation” and divisive tactics. She said, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. I stand here now without endorsement from many big-name politicians or any other kind of prop…I am the candidate of the people of America.” She added, “The president has broken his promises to us, and has therefore lost his claim to our trust.”
Chisholm lost the nomination to anti-war candidate George McGovern; she went on to serve 11 more years in Congress.
5. Chisholm Died in her Home in Florida at the Age of 80, After Suffering Several Strokes
Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, after her second husband, Arthur Hardwick, was injured in a car accident; Chisholm said that his injury made her re-evaluate her priorities. “I had been so consumed by my life in politics,” she said at the time. “I had no time for privacy, no time for my husband, no time to play my beautiful grand piano. After he recovered, I decided to make some changes in my life. I truly believe God had a message for me.” Hardwick died in 1986, and in 1991 Chisholm moved to Florida.
She told the New York Times in 2002 that she was living a quiet life and that she was enjoying reading biographies. “I have faded out of the scene,” she said. Chisholm suffered a series of strokes before passing away in 2005. Before her death, Chisholm talked about the kind of legacy she wanted to leave behind. The politician and educator said that she didn’t want to be remembered as the “first black woman congressman.” Rather, she told the New York Times, “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”