Columbians Ahead of Their Time
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm

"In the end antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing—antihumanism."

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924–2005)
TC 1951, Professional Diploma 1961

As a member of the New York State Assembly and then the U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm gained widespread notice as a tireless advocate for the interests of African Americans, women, and the urban poor, and as a champion of greater educational opportunity for all. After working her way up through Brooklyn Democratic clubs, Chisholm was elected a state assemblywoman in 1964, outpolling a pair of opponents by more than six to one. In 1968 she was elected to Congress by another decisive margin, representing a new majority-black district created in the wake of civil-rights reforms. The first African American woman in Congress, Chisholm published an autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, in 1970. Two years later she became the first black female to seek a major-party presidential nomination, running against George McGovern and other Democrats. Although she lost, she received 10 percent of the convention vote and gained an additional measure of prominence for herself and her positions; her book The Good Fight (1973) chronicles the effort. Chisholm remained in Congress for another ten years, and after retiring in 1983 went on to lecture widely in addition to teaching at Mount Holyoke College and later Spelman College. Long known for her independent spirit and political savvy, she helped found the National Political Congress of Black Women in the mid-1980s and has remained influential in public affairs.

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn but began her formal education in Barbados, where she lived with relatives. Upon returning to her parents' home in Brooklyn, she found in her father—a devotee of Marcus Garvey, who believed black unity would bring economic and political strength—an early and enduring influence. Despite scholarship offers to Oberlin and Vassar, she chose to stay at home and attend Brooklyn College. Chisholm received her master's degree in early childhood education at Teachers College in 1951. It was at TC that she met Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican graduate student who would become her first husband. (They divorced many years later, and Chisholm remarried.) After graduating she ran a child-care center and then worked as a consultant on child-welfare issues. Despite her historic "firsts," Chisholm has said she does not want to be remembered primarily for them: "I'd like to be known as a catalyst for change," she said, "a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population, because I'm a product of both, being black and a woman." In 1985, Chisholm received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College.

Photo credit: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries

Read more about Chisholm in the Columbia Encyclopedia.

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