Did You Know?: Shirley Chisholm Was The First Black Woman Elected To Congress 55 Years Ago


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Fifty-five years ago, on Nov. 5, 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress.

With the upcoming Election Day on Tuesday, ESSENCE is taking a look back at her historic campaign and political career.

The native New Yorker’s entry to politics started in 1953 campaigning for Lewis Flagg Jr., who was vying to become the first Black judge in Brooklyn. More than a decade later she would go on to work on her own campaign, successfully running for a seat in the New York State Assembly.

Up next, Chisholm made a run for Congress “[u]sing the motto ‘unbought and unbossed’” which she would later entitle her 1970 autobiography.

Her opponent: James Farmer, a Black civil rights leader running as a Republican. The newly apportioned 12th Congressional district “was largely made up of Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant community and a few other parts of the borough. Bed-Stuy’s residents were mostly African-American and Puerto Rican,” NPR reports. It also gave Chisholm home field advantage, because it was where she called home.

Labeling Farmer, the Manhattanite, “an outsider” Chisholm used her Spanish skills to speak with constituents and “took her campaign to the streets, literally, riding on a truck with a loudspeaker. Making multiple stops, she regularly kicked off her remarks by saying, ‘This is Fighting Shirley Chisholm,’” as NPR has reported.

Chisholm soundly defeated Farmer by more than a “2-to-1 margin.” Upon learning of her victory, Chisholm delivered remarks that evening, stating “My dear friends, tonight is a very important night…not so much for me, but for you, the people of this community.”

She would go on to serve seven terms, starting with her first in 1969. In addition, she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus that year. Even as a freshman, Chisholm wasn’t afraid to ask for what she wanted. She made waves after demanding to be reassigned from the House Forestry Committee.

Subsequently, “[s]he was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committee,” which in modern day times is now referred to as the Education and Workforce Committee.

In 1972, she shattered yet another glass ceiling, becoming “the first African American woman to make a bid to be president of the United States when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972.”

Chisholm’s legacy will never be forgotten. Since her win in New York, only twenty-two other states have also elected a Black woman to Congress, according to Pew Research Center. Virginia just elected its first Black Congresswoman this year. In total, 58 “Black women…have ever been elected to the national legislature, counting both voting and nonvoting members of Congress.”


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