NYC museum exhibit honors legacy of Brooklyn Rep. Shirley Chisholm

NYC museum exhibit honors legacy of Brooklyn Rep. Shirley Chisholm

When California Congresswoman Barbara Lee was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998, there wasn’t even a picture in the Capitol honoring her mentor, Shirley Chisholm.

There was no postage stamp in Chisholm’s honor, and no one had highlighted her achievements in the congressional record.

“Shirley Chisholm fought so hard for domestic workers, and for economic justice for low wage workers,” Lee said recently in an Instagram tribute. “And I think about her each and every day as I fight for our caregivers and for those who make low wages.”

Lee’s relationship with Chisholm, the trailblazing Brooklyn politician, is well documented in “Shirley,” a Netflix movie about Chisholm’s life,  which came out in March.

And Lee was front and center last week in Manhattan for the opening of a new museum exhibit honoring Chisholm’s life and legacy.

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee attends Netflix's 'Shirley' Los Angeles Premiere at The Egyptian Theatre Hollywood on March 19, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)
U.S. Representative Barbara Lee attends Netflix’s ‘Shirley’ Los Angeles Premiere in March 2024 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix)

“Changing the Face of Democracy: Shirley Chisholm at 100,” salutes the inspiring career of Chisholm, the Brooklyn lawmaker who was the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first African-American to seek the nomination of a major political party for president of the United States.

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman, proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free,” Chisholm once remarked.

Before Rodneyse Bichotte Hermelyn became Brooklyn’s Democratic boss, before Andrea Stewart-Cousins became the state’s Senate majority leader, before Kamala Harris became vice president of the United States, there was Shirley Chisholm

The Chisholm exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Ave. chronicles three areas of the congresswoman’s life: her roots in Brooklyn, her political career and her inspiring legacy.

Highlights of the exhibit include memorabilia from Chisholm’s historic presidential campaign, her wedding portrait and college diploma, a costume worn by “Shirley” star Regina King and oral histories from women’s activist Gloria Steinem, poet Sonia Sanchez and the late former New York City Mayor David Dinkins.

It’s only fitting that the exhibit, which runs through July 20, is opening during Caribbean American Heritage Month.

Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, was the proud daughter of Caribbean immigrants. Her mother was a seamstress from Barbados, and her father was a factory worker from Guyana. She spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her maternal grandmother, where she attended strict, traditional, British-style schools.

An educator by trade, her political career began with her election to the state Assembly in 1964. Four years later, in 1968, she ran for Congress under the motto, “Unbought and Unbossed.” Not satisfied with the history she had already achieved — or the conditions of working class Americans — Chisholm launched her historic run for president in 1972.

Rep. Shirley Chisholm adddresses women's caucus at Democratic Convention in Miami, Florida, in 1972. (James Garrett/New York Daily News)
Rep. Shirley Chisholm addresses women’s caucus at Democratic Convention in Miami in 1972. (James Garrett/New York Daily News)

When Lee, 77, a former Black Panther Party organizer, first met Chisholm during the presidential candidate’s California campaign, Lee wasn’t even registered to vote. Lee, a Mills College student, had invited Chisholm to speak at her school’s Black Student Union.

Before long, she was working on Chisholm’s presidential campaign, and served as her delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami.

“I’m excited to join the Museum of the City of New York in celebrating my late mentor Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s legacy,” Lee said. “Ms. C paved the way for myself and countless others in public service.”

Lee is currently running for a U.S. Senate seat in California.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983.

She continued to speak out for the rights of women, people of color, and the poor, fighting for legislation to support daycare centers and provide federal aid for education.

“The next time a woman runs, or a Black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start,” Chisholm later wrote. “I ran because somebody had to do it first.”

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