Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

I hated history — until I learned about Shirley Chisholm

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) is seen in 1968
Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) is seen in 1968

Growing up as a Black girl in grade school, I hated history.

Black history tiptoed around slavery and implied Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism. Women's history included Amelia Earhart, aviation and a short, incomplete summary of Rosa Parks.

I was never in the history books. Though I didn't know it at the time, I was intentionally left out of them.

It wasn't until college that I learned about figures such as Claudette Colvin, a dark-skinned woman who refused to give up her seat before Rosa Parks did; Pauli Murray, who struggled with their gender; Clara Luper, a leading civil rights activist born and raised in my home state, Oklahoma; and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. Representative.

All this history and (can you believe?) I didn't even learn about these women in my college courses. I learned about them through the community and through my own volition and curiosity.

Because it's an election year, it's the perfect time to remember one of these incomparable women who tore down barriers in U.S. politics: Shirley Chisholm.

"The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: 'It's a girl.' "

Chisholm had plenty of firsts under her belt.

In 1968, she became the first Black congresswoman, representing the majority Black and largely Puerto Rican district in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was born and raised.

Four years later, she became the first Black person to seek a major party (Democratic) presidential nomination. She ran on the slogan "Unbought and unbossed." The slogan played on the racism and sexism she faced and highlighted her bold, determined and unapologetic personality.

Chisholm was unsuccessful in her presidential campaign, but she continued to serve in Congress.

"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

Chisholm was not warmly welcomed to Washington, D.C. Sharp, persistent and forthright, she refused to fly under the radar to appease her peers. She consistently spoke out about the difficulties of being a Black person and a woman in her position. She called it a "double handicap. "When it came to politics, one handicap was more prominent than the other.

"I met far more discrimination being a woman than being black when I moved out into the political arena," Chisholm told Tavis Smiley in a 2003 interview.

"Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society because that talent wears a skirt."

Before she entered politics, Chisholm was a nursery school teacher. So, it's no surprise that her legislation focused on educational and labor policies to improve the lives of the working class, Black people and women.

"Be as bold as the first man or woman to eat an oyster."

Most of those who knew Chisholm when she was alive said that she lived by her presidential slogan, unbought and unbossed. Even her appearance was bold and staunchly unique, for she wore colorful patterned clothes, had big curls and stood tall with a posture that said, "I'm here."

"I'd like them to say, 'Shirley Chisholm had guts.' That's how I'd like to be remembered."

Chisholm was born on Nov. 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, N.Y. She died Jan. 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Fla.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit

Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams is a news assistant on Morning Edition and Up First.