Shirley Chisholm was on the fence about running for Congress when a woman came to her Brooklyn apartment. The visitor, a poor mother, said that she and her friends wanted Chisholm to run. “She gave me a dirty envelope containing $9.62 in nickels, dimes and quarters that they had raised and promised that if I ran they would sponsor fund-raising affairs every Friday night to help finance my campaign,” Chisholm told Ebony. After the woman left, Chisholm sat down, took off her glasses, and cried.
It was her first campaign contribution.
Chisholm ran in New York’s 12th district, a newly reapportioned district centered in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood. She projected strength, confidence, and outspokenness, an image reflected in a later campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.” She crisscrossed the district in a campaign truck, her voice carrying over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and Gentlemen . . . this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.”
After her victory, Chisholm became a Representative who often blazed her own trail rather than build bridges with other politicians. She gave voice to women, African Americans, Latinos, and the poor. Seated in her living room, amid plastic-covered couches and decorative African and Chinese art, she told an interviewer, “My power comes from the people.”
When she took her seat in the 91st Congress in January 1969, Chisholm became the first African-American woman in Congress. On Opening Day, busloads of Brooklyn supporters and campaign workers followed Chisholm to Washington, throwing a party to celebrate her. They also planned to attend her swearing-in and a ceremonial oath ceremony, conducted by Speaker John McCormack, but their buses arrived too late. Instead, “A few reported happily that they had been able to get into the gallery to see Mrs. Chisholm, in a bright red suit with black velvet lapels and white blouse, make history as the first Negro woman seated in Congress,” the Washington Post reported. A photograph taken around 1969 captures her triumphant smile, as she stands tall, by herself, posing in front of the Capitol.
In an Ebony interview, Chisholm speculated about which committee assignments she might get when she entered the House. As a freshman, she had little say in her appointments, but as a former educator felt that she could best serve her constituents, and African Americans in general, on the Education and Labor Committee.
However, she was appointed to the Agriculture Committee. “Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there,” the urban Representative bristled. In an unconventional tactic, she brought her complaint before the House. Eventually, she was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which suited her constituency better than Agriculture. “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees.” The Congresswoman’s protest might have looked good in her district, one Member told the press, but it looked bad around the House. Once again, Chisholm stood apart from other Members.
As her career in the House progressed, Chisholm drew better committee assignments. She served on the Education and Labor Committee from 1971 to 1977. She also helped to found the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977.
In 1977, Chisholm joined the powerful Rules Committee. A photograph from the 95th Congress (1977–1979) shows the committee, along with staff, in its hearing room. As the only woman, and the only African American, on the committee, Chisholm stands out from her colleagues. With a slight smile and upright posture, Chisholm sits composed, having worked her way front and center.
In a third photograph, Chisholm speaks, her index finger raised, her voice magnified and recorded by microphones. A light, reflected in her eyes, bounces off her glasses, jewelry, and hair. “Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., pictured campaigning in Massachusetts, is seeking no ordinary office,” the photo caption reads. In 1972, Chisholm caught the spotlight during her run for the presidency.
Just as she was the first African-American woman in Congress, Chisholm was also the first African-American woman to seek the nomination of a major party. By striking out on her own with her candidacy, rather than working closely with her peers in the Congressional Black Caucus, she again rocked political traditions and ruffled feathers.
Although Chisholm did not receive the Democratic nomination, she nonetheless received a notable 10 percent of the delegate votes during the Democratic National Convention. She remained in the House until 1983.
As these three photographs show Chisholm’s path through national politics, her portrait in the Capitol shows her strong, solitary stance for her principles and her constituents, and her towering influence over politics.
Sources: Atlanta Constitution, November 1, 1971; Ebony, February 1969; Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1969; New York Times, October 26, 1968 and January 26, 1972; and Washington Post, January 4 and January 30, 1969.Follow @USHouseHistory