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Chisholm Center Uses History to Inspire Activism

If you paid attention during presidential primary season, you might have been led to believe that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are the first African-American and woman to seek the U.S. presidency. In fact, this idea was put forward with mantra-like regularity. Of course, it was false.

A number of people of color and women have sought America’s highest office over the past century, campaigning on platforms across the political spectrum. Victoria Woodhull got the ball rolling in 1872, pushing an agenda that favored gender equity, sex education and free love. More recently, contemporary figures such as Carol Moseley Braun, Elizabeth Dole, Jesse Jackson, and Alan Keyes have entered the fray.

Administration assistant Marwa Amer, Brooklyn College Women's Studies graduate working on the boxes of archival materials. Photo by Barbara Winslow.
Administration assistant Marwa Amer, Brooklyn College Women's Studies graduate working on the boxes of archival materials. Photo by Barbara Winslow.

And then there’s Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was a person of firsts: The first African American woman to serve in Congress and the first to run for President in 1972. A seven-term Congresswoman from Bedford-Stuyvesant, she was elected in 1968 and spent the next 14 years championing public education, social welfare expansion, and peace. She opposed the Vietnam War and was known to be acerbic, straightforward, and unabashedly liberal.

Still, if you ask most young people today what they know about Chisholm, you’ll likely get blank stares. To rectify this, the Shirley Chisholm Center for Research on Women, an archive of Brooklyn-style social change, opened in January 2005, just months before the Congresswoman died. The center is presently gathering media and personal histories for the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, which should be available at the center and online in early 2009.

Barbara Winslow, Project Director and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at Brooklyn College, hopes the materials will spur educators to teach their students about Chisholm’s work and will inspire scholars and activists to learn from her example. Decades later, her speeches still pack a punch. “Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men,” she wrote in 1970.

Another talk could have been penned this morning: “Prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them, and profits by them…Unless we start to fight and deflect the enemies in our own country-poverty and racism-and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.”

No wonder she was known as “Fighting Shirley Chisholm” by both supporters and detractors.

Kemille Jackson, archivist, MA in History and Archival studies, Brooklyn College, sets up an interview.  Photo by Barbara Winslow.
Kemille Jackson, archivist, MA in History and Archival studies, Brooklyn College, sets up an interview. Photo by Barbara Winslow.

Chisholm got her activist start as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College—class of 1946—so it is fitting that the Chisholm Center is housed there. Still in its infancy, the four-year-old center is amassing campaign materials, film clips, articles, photos and other documentation about the Congresswoman. Staff have also begun to videotape oral histories from people who knew Chisholm, as well as activists whose work dovetailed, or collided, with her efforts.

“We see it as our responsibility to reach high school and college students with the idea that participating in politics is good and can bring about positive social change,” says Winslow.

“When Chisholm was a student at Brooklyn College, Black students were not allowed to participate in the Democratic Party Club, so Chisholm started the Harriet Tubman Society,” Winslow continues. “We feel that the struggle against racism at Brooklyn College and her struggle to get Black students involved in politics are very important. The solution she found to her exclusion showed that she was a practical and effective fighter for Black students at the college. She showed that you could fight injustice and win.”

Indeed, as Winslow investigated Chisholm’s transition from fiery student to impassioned teacher—and New York State Assemblywoman, U.S. Congress member, as well as U.S. Presidential candidate—she realized that interviewing people who knew Chisholm and putting these interviews on the Internet would be a good way to inspire up-and-coming 21st century activists. A $200,000 grant from the Westchester Jewish Women’s fund allowed the Project to launch.

“We want to educate the community about Chisholm since she is no longer prominent,” Winslow says. “One of the things that struck me about her was the fact that when she was first elected to Congress in 1968, 70% of her district was female. It occurred to me that it was women’s efforts that propelled Shirley Chisholm to the forefront: women active in block associations, PTAs, community centers, and Democratic political groups in her community. I realized that we needed to create a project to capture the social history of activist women throughout Brooklyn so that the Chisholm Center will be about more than one person.”

More than twenty oral histories—interviewees include male and female campaign volunteers, former colleagues like Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, former staff members, and people who simply knew her from the neighborhood—have already been recorded and will be available on the Web beginning in March 2009. Additional interviews will be conducted into the foreseeable future.

Jitu Weusi, a retired social studies teacher and Chair of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, spoke to Project staff last spring. He calls Chisholm “a trailblazer, a path finder,” and an “important person in Bed-Stuy history.”

Although Weusi did not always believe Chisholm was radical enough while she was in Congress, he ultimately believes she was a force for good. He notes that the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program she started continues to help kids go to college and that she helped people own their own homes. “I think her work did more to help and advantage the developing Black middle class than to help the poor, but she was still a pioneer as far as Brooklyn is concerned,” he says.

Joshua Guild, a 33-year-old Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies at Princeton, and the 2008 keynote speaker at the Center’s annual celebration of Chisholm’s legacy, recalls learning very little about Chisholm in either high school or college. He sees righting that omission and restoring her place in history as imperative.

“It boggles the mind to think about her now and imagine what it must have been like to come into smoky Congressional rooms as a small Black woman in 1969,” he says. “She was so undaunted, even when she built what we consider to be unlikely coalitions. That possibly explains why she’s not better remembered today. She made alliances that people did not understand—like visiting George Wallace after he’d been shot—that we’re still grappling with.”

Having a place to interrogate Chisholm’s impact—both at Brooklyn College and online—so that community organizers, students, and scholars can debate and reflect on strategies and tactics is exciting for Guild. “As a historian, I’ve often wanted to hear the voices of people involved in various campaigns or struggles,” he adds. “To have a repository like this, about Brooklyn women’s activism, is a tremendous resource.”

For more information on the Shirley Chisholm center contact:


Eleanor J. Bader


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2008

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