When Congress convened in January of 1969, there was only one new female face among the men and women of the 91st Congress. She stood out for several reasons, the most obvious being that she was the only black woman in the room.
She was also a small woman, slight of build, with big hair and thick glasses. She was not overly awed by the panoply around her. Shirley Chisholm had come to Washington to work.
She was representing a newly created and long overdue district in Central Brooklyn, that of greater Bedford Stuyvesant. Prior to this new district, Central Brooklyn had been gerrymandered into other larger districts with white majorities.
For the first time ever, a black Congressman, in this historic case, a black Congresswoman, was going to represent this community’s many needs in the halls of power. It was going to be an uphill battle. But 1969 was one of those years.
Today, we are very cynical about what goes on in Washington, and with good reason, but almost 50 years ago, it was a different place. There was more respect for Congress and its power to change the country for the better.
But in many ways, Congress was still the same. There was rampant cronyism, partisan in-fighting, powerful outside influences, racism, sexism and the good-old boy network. Shirley Chisholm had to fight her way through it all. And like her experiences in politics in Brooklyn, Shirley knew how to be effective, and how to work with the most unlikely of people.
This is the story of Ms. Chisholm’s political and personal life, and it’s also the third part of our walking tour of the places that had meaning to her in her hometown of Brooklyn.
As we saw in Part 1 and Part 2, she was shaped by her attendance at Girls High School, Brooklyn College, and the homes she lived in while going to school, and in her early working life. The family moved to their own hard-won home at 1094 Prospect Place in 1945. In 1949, Shirley married Conrad Chisholm, and they moved to 28 Virginia Place in 1968.
Shirley was about to embark on her Congressional career after winning the 1968 election, so they hardly were settled in this home when she left for Washington. Conrad stayed in Brooklyn. He always said that he didn’t like the spotlight, and was quite content for his wife to be in politics and in the public eye.
He stayed home on Virginia Place during her early Washington years. When Shirley came home, the house must have been bustling with meetings with important local figures, friends and everyday folk.
Back in D.C., Shirley wasted no time in establishing her bona fides as someone who lived by her political slogan — “unbossed and unbought.” Her first speech on the House floor in March of 1969 was a condemnation of the Vietnam War. She vowed to vote against any defense appropriation bills “until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right–side up again.”
The real power in Congress lies in the committees to which one is appointed. Shirley Chisholm, a woman who had lived in Brooklyn for most of her life, and represented the ultimate in inner city communities, was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, a very blatant message that she would be rendered useless.
She knew it, and was not happy about it. She came home and had a meeting with one of her constituents and an old friend; Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Grand Rebbe of the Lubavitch community, who lived only blocks from her house.
This remarkable alliance is not often talked about, and I would love to explore their relationship further. I think Rabbi Schneerson must have loved Ms. Chisholm’s chutzpah. The Lubavitchers and the West Indians had lived side by side in Crown Heights since the end of World War II, pretty much ignored by the rest of the city.
While the relationship had its tensions and cultural differences, both sides shared these streets in peace, and Shirley Chisholm was the elected representative of their district. The Grand Rebbe’s offices are our next stop on our walking tour.
4. 770 Eastern Parkway: Rabbi Schneerson’s office was located at 770 Eastern Parkway, between Brooklyn and Kingston avenues. It is a large, attractive Gothic Revival building that serves as the world headquarters for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, the largest of the ultra-orthodox sects of Judaism. The building was originally built as an apartment building in the 1930s, with medical and doctors’ offices on the ground floor.
In 1945, the building was purchased by the Chabad Lubavitchers for Rabbi Schneerson’s father-in-law, Rabbi Yoseph Yitzchak Schneerson. The building became the group’s main synagogue, a yeshiva, and home to the elder Schneerson. The younger Rabbi Schneerson had his office on the ground floor.
After the death of Rabbi Yoseph Schneerson in 1950, his son-in-law Menachem became the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. This location became the world headquarters. As time passed, it became much too small to remain the main synagogue and yeshiva and the building was added to, and some of the functions of the organization moved to other nearby buildings.
By the time Shirley Chisholm and Rabbi Menachem Schneerson were working together, the Lubavitch movement was a powerful presence in Crown Heights and in Shirley Chisolm’s district.
When Shirley told the Rabbi she had been shuffled off to the Agricultural Committee, she complained that the committee was irrelevant to her urban constituents. He told her to own it. He suggested that she use the resources of the Department of Agriculture and feed the people of the inner city and the hungry anywhere in the country.
She took his advice, and working with Robert Dole, expanded the food stamp program and established the WIC program, food for women, infants and children. Shirley always credited Rabbi Schneerson for the fact that babies and children would now be eligible for supplemental food.
Shirley Chisholm’s stay in Congress involved one cause and one fight after another. She was an ardent fighter for her causes of racial equality and equal rights for women, as well as for children’s issues. She didn’t like the games of Washington, and often refused to play them, gaining a reputation as difficult and not a loyalist.
She held the needs of her constituents as more important than the needs of the little subgroups she was being groomed for, and when that meant crossing the aisle to get a project approved and through Congress, then she crossed the aisle and worked with the Republicans who could get it done.
By 1972, Shirley Chisolm was one of the most visible and powerful members of Congress. She was one of the founding members of the Black Caucus in 1971 and that same year was one of the founding members of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She shocked constituents and Congressmen alike when she visited Governor George Wallace in the hospital after he had been shot. He later helped her get Southern support and votes on a bill that gave domestic workers the right to receive a minimum wage for the first time.
5. 1028 St. Johns Place: Back home, Shirley and Conrad had moved to a new home during her first term in Congress. It was only a block away from their Virginia Place home, at 1028 St. Johns Place, between Brooklyn and Kingston avenues. 1028 St. Johns Place is a single-family neo-Tudor row house built in 1912.
This part of Crown Heights is anchored by the beautiful Roman basilica-style church of St. Gregory the Great, built in 1915. By the ‘teens, the grand rows of upper-middle class townhouses were no longer being built. Smaller homes and two-family houses were going up in this increasingly middle-class white ethnic neighborhood, now populated by Jewish, Italian and Irish homeowners.
These houses were being built in the popular Colonial Revival, neo-Tudor and Medieval styles suburban home styles. This group of houses that includes 1028 St. Johns are neo-Tudors.
The house is narrow, only 16.5 feet wide, but feels larger inside, because of a more open floor plan. Designed for the new American family without servants, the house has a living room, dining room, kitchen, and perhaps a powder room on the ground floor, and bedrooms and the main bathroom above. Like its suburban cousin, the houses also have garages in the back, accessible by a private alley.
In 1972, Shirley decided to run for President of the United States. She received little attention from most of the Democratic Party, which considered her a symbolic fringe candidate. Sadly, she received even less help from black male Democrats. She always said that she had encountered more impediments to her career from her being a woman than she did from being black.
Within many segments of the black political leadership, she was considered too strident, too pushy, and not respectful of their leadership. Many considered her an emasculating matriarch, a quality that was often mentioned in the press.
The label bothered her greatly, and she said once, “They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back.” Conrad Chisholm didn’t have a problem with her candidacy, and supported her unequivocally.
The couple ran their campaign from the house on St. Johns Place, with political strategy meetings taking place here throughout the run to the Democratic primary.
Central Brooklyn had a lot of buildings that had originally had other functions when built, but had turned into catering halls, nightclubs and gathering spaces. Shirley and her campaign used the largest of these to hold rallies, and also took her campaign across the city and in several key states.
6. 1147 Eastern Parkway: The next stop on our tour was a former mansion at 1147 Eastern Parkway, a recent Building of the Day. This Colonial Revival mansion is located five blocks down from Lubavitch World Headquarters, our previous stop.
1147 Eastern Parkway was purchased by Conrad Chisholm and converted from a Jewish social and political club into an events space.
7. 1391 St. Marks Avenue: Another rallying place for the Chisholm campaigns was the Bellrose Ballroom, a former automobile showroom, located at 1391 St. Marks Avenue, in the triangle between Bedford and Rogers avenues.
The Bellrose has started out as one of the many automobile showrooms built along Bedford Avenue, when it was known as Automobile Row. The building was built in 1918, and was designed by architect Henry Nurick, with a showroom on the ground floor and separate offices above.
Upstairs became the local branch of the Motor Vehicles Department during the 1930s, another indication of the size and importance of Automobile Row. By World War II, the Row was in decline, and the building became a supermarket, and finally, in the 1960s, the Bellrose.
Shirley Chisholm held rallies here in both her Congressional and Presidential runs for office. The Bellrose was lost to taxes in the 80s, and has been bricked up ever since. It now belongs to nearby Washington Temple.
Shirley Chisholm did not even come close to winning the Democratic Primary in 1972, but she received several hundred thousand popular votes and 28 electoral delegates at the primary. She was the first serious female and African American candidate for president.
She paved the way for Jesse Jackson’s later run, and finally Barak Obama’s successful election. She was also an inspiration for Geraldine Farrarro and all of the women who followed her.
After the election, Ms. Chisholm went back to Congress, where she continued to push for the end of the Vietnam draft and the war, as well as for programs for the inner cities, women and children. She became one of the most visible and effective members of that body during her tenure. Her marriage to Conrad fell apart, and they divorced in 1977.
She later married Arthur Hardwick Jr. who had been a fellow New York State Assemblyman with her years before. He lived in Buffalo, and Shirley sold her house on St. Johns Place and moved there with him.
1028 St. Johns was sold to Carlos Lezama and his family. He was one of the original organizers of the world famous West Indian Day Parade, which dances along Eastern Parkway on Labor Day. The house went from the seriousness of politics to the equally serious job of organizing this huge event.
The house is still in the Lezama family, and is now the Carlos Lezama Museum, dedicated to Mr. Lezama, the parade, and Shirley Chisholm and her history and legacy.
By 1982, Shirley had grown weary of fighting. Ronald Reagan had become president, and the liberals in Congress were going in a direction she did not like. Her husband Arthur had had a serious accident, so she decided to retire to take care of him, and pursue her agendas outside of politics. She was immediately hired by Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
She taught there from 1983 to 1987. She was also a visiting professor at Spelman College in Atlanta. Arthur Hardwick died in 1986.
Shirley Chisholm spent the rest of her life on the lecture and speaking circuit. She told college students across the country to expand their horizons and avoid polarization and intolerance. “If you don’t accept others who are different, it means nothing that you’ve learned calculus,” she said.
She moved from the Buffalo area to the warmth of Florida in 1991. In 1993, President Bill Clinton wanted to appoint her as ambassador to Jamaica, but Shirley was not well enough to serve. Over the next few years she suffered several strokes, and died in 2005 on New Year’s Day. She’s buried with Arthur Hardwick in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.
Her legacy is great, both here in Brooklyn, and nationally. She spent her life breaking the norms and the rules in a passionate pursuit of justice and social equality for all people, especially those in poverty. Today, the New York State Office building on Hanson Place is named for her.
Many other honors have been bestowed on her, as well. There is so much more nuance to her story than what was told in this three part essay. She was a remarkable woman, one who remained throughout her life Unbossed and Unbought.
(Research for this series came from newspapers, official biographies from various different sources, Wikipedia, and a great book, Paving the Way for Madam President, by Nicola D. Gutgold. Architectural information has come from my own research and that of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has calendared Phase III of the Crown Heights North Historic District, which includes all three of Shirley Chisholm’s residences in its boundaries. We are awaiting the designation of this district, hopefully this year.)
Walkabout: A Shirley Chisholm Architectural Walking Tour, Part 1
Walkabout: A Shirley Chisholm Architectural Walking Tour, Part 2
Shirley Chisholm, Bed Stuy’s Restoration, and More: 5 Longreads for a Long Weekend