Since 1976, the month of February has been designated as National Black History Month, a time to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Black Americans and to honor those individuals who were instrumental in shaping our country. For me, this reflection on our past includes the acknowledgement that we still have work to do to ensure the American ideals of freedom and equality are a reality for everyone. During this Black History Month, I choose to honor the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress and, unbeknownst to many, a former resident of the Town of Amherst.
Shirley Anita Chisholm was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 30, 1924, the oldest of four daughters of immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados. She graduated from Brooklyn Girls’ High in 1942 and, in 1946, graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College, where she won awards as a member of the debate team. After graduation, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher and later earned a master's degree in early childhood education from Columbia University. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, she became politically active in the areas of education and social justice, joining local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and the Brooklyn Democratic Club.
In 1964, Chisholm was elected to the New York State Assembly. In 1968, she was the first African American woman elected to the United States House of Representatives. There, Chisholm introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and continued to advocate for education, families, racial justice and gender equality, as well as for ending the Vietnam War. Additionally, she served on the Agriculture and Education Committees before becoming the first Black woman – and the second woman in history – to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee.
In 1972, Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for President of the United States and the first woman to seek the Democratic Party presidential nomination. She did not see herself as a candidate of Black America or of the womens’ movement, but as a candidate for the people. Though she was able to gain a following of students, women and minorities, Chisholm’s campaign was under-financed and faced pushback both from the Democratic Party establishment and the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus. Ultimately, Chisholm entered 12 primaries and gained the votes of 152 delegates–10% of the total.
Shirley Chisholm continued to serve as a member of Congress until her retirement in 1983. For several years, Chisholm and her husband, Arthur Hardwick, a former NYS Assemblyman from Buffalo, resided on Crestwood Lane in Amherst and were active in several civic organizations, including the NAACP. Shirley Chisholm died in 2005 and was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. The inscription on her grave is her campaign slogan - “Unbought and Unbossed.”
I am seeking ideas about ways to appropriately honor Shirley Chisholm in the Town of Amherst. If you have any suggestions, or any questions or concerns about other community issues, please feel free to contact my office at 716-634-1895 or McMahonK@nyassembly.gov.