Back Home in Brooklyn, Rivals and Allies Remember Chisholm

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Date: Jan. 4, 2005
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,186 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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Her face stares out from a wall on an elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, one of the few visible signs that Shirley Chisholm was here, even if she chose not to stay.

Ms. Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black woman to seek the nomination of a major party for president, some two decades ago left the neighborhood she represented in Congress in a pique. She said she was seeking privacy and had grown tired of detractors who accused of her betraying her radical roots and cozying up with figures varying from George C. Wallace to Edward I. Koch.

But yesterday, reacting to her death on Saturday, opponents and allies recalled her fortitude and her ground-breaking achievements. Some said that a woman whose presence had faded after her turn as a national political figure had been on the cusp of a gradual revival before her death, even in the borough she forsook for Buffalo and then Florida for a quiet life on the lecture circuit.

''I think she was probably much more respected and controversial in her own time,'' said Janet Braun-Reinitz, an artist with the nonprofit group Artmakers who, long before Ms. Chisholm's death, began helping to organize a large mural in Bedford-Stuyvesant in honor of Ms. Chisholm and other female historical figures. ''I think now she is coming back larger than life.''

The artists are working with the newly christened Shirley Chisholm Center for the Study of Women at Brooklyn College, Ms. Chisholm's alma mater.

But in a sign that Ms. Chisholm's fame had waned considerably, Barbara Winslow, the coordinator of women's studies at the college, said that last spring, when she suggested putting Ms. Chisholm's name on the center as a nod to her lesser-known role as a feminist, few fellow faculty members knew Ms. Chisholm had attended the college.

Even students at the college who benefited from SEEK, a program that Ms. Chisholm lobbied for as a state legislator that provides financial and academic assistance to poor college students, had not heard of her, Ms. Winslow said yesterday.

But, she said, perhaps in reaction to the conservative drift in the country and a growing desire to examine lesser-known figures of the civil rights and women's rights movements, interest in Ms. Chisholm seemed to have been growing recently.

Her campaign for president was the subject of a documentary by Shola Lynch, ''Chisholm 72: Unbought and Unbossed,'' which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival last year and will be broadcast nationally on PBS's P.O.V. series on Feb. 7.

Her Congressional victory, a triumph against the political establishment, and subsequent campaign for president has long drawn national notice, and her death prompted an outpouring in Congress as well as New York City.

''A true trailblazer, she challenged the conventional wisdom of the day by making a run for the presidency, and she forged bipartisan relationships for the betterment of her community and the causes that were closest to her heart,'' Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement. ''Shirley Chisholm will be missed by all but leaves a legacy for all of us to be proud of.''

On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, few young people seemed to know who she was or only vaguely knew she was a political celebrity.

''I don't remember learning about her in school,'' said Kamilah Duggins, 26, a media consultant, who spoke near the mural of Ms. Chisholm drawn on the side of Public School 35.

But those who were older fondly recalled her work in the community and pioneering role in politics. ''There's a real sense of loss in this community,'' said Greg Hardy, 55, a city bus driver. ''She was well known and well respected more than anything else. I don't think young people understood what she meant for this community.''

She leaves behind admirers and former aides throughout the political machinery here and in Washington.

Victor L. Robles, the New York City clerk, who ran her district office in the 1970's before embarking on his own political career, said that Ms. Chisholm had eschewed public recognition for her achievements. If she is not as big a household name as other civil rights pioneers, he said, it may be due to her penchant for butting heads with the establishment.

''That was not her thing, it was not about name recognition,'' Mr. Robles said. ''She was more about planting the seed and nurturing the seed so others afterward could reap the benefits. She was not the establishment; she beat the establishment and while she worked with them, many times she was against them.''

Mr. Robles and others said Brooklynites could thank Ms. Chisholm for her work establishing day care centers and her advocacy for the Brooklyn Children's Museum and Medgar Evers College.

But at the time she announced her retirement in 1982, her prestige in Brooklyn had faded as new community advocates and organizers arose and grew impatient with her fame and the perception that she had lost touch with the neighborhoods.

Representative Major R. Owens, who succeeded Ms. Chisholm in the 12th Congressional District without her backing, praised her as a unifier of Caribbean-born and United States-born blacks in the district and for demonstrating the value of traditional politics.

''She sent the message to grassroots and civil rights leaders that clubhouse and traditional power was not irrelevant,'' he said, calling her a ''loner and rugged individualist.''

But Mr. Owens said, ''what she started she had not bothered to remain a part of'' and ''one of the biggest complaints was she ignored the district and brought home fewer resources and in general got caught up in national speaking tours.''

Her visit with Mr. Wallace, the segregationist who also ran for president in 1972, in the hospital after he was shot at a campaign event angered her predominantly black constituents, as did her endorsement of Mr. Koch for governor. But Ms. Chisholm made no apologies and, when it came to criticism, gave as much as she got.

Of black politicians in New York City, she said in a March 1981 interview with The New York Times: ''They're like crabs in a barrel, crawling all over each other so nobody gets to the top.''

Ms. Lynch, the filmmaker, said she was not surprised that Ms. Chisholm had faded from the political scene, though she continued to give lectures until shortly before her death.

''I really had to work hard in finding her,'' she said. ''Most people had thought she had passed. But she is a doer. When she stops, she retires, and her mind is on to something else.''

She added: ''I don't know that she was the type to look back on the glory days and tell war stories. But she was kind of a political action hero to me.''


Photos: Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, is depicted in a mural at Public School 35 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. (Photo by Robert Stolarik for The New York Times); Ms. Chisholm surrounded by campaign workers shortly after she won election to Congress from Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1968. (Photo by Associated Press)

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