Meyer Liebowitz/The New York Times Shirley Chisholm, Political Pioneer and Census Taker
She had already surprised everyone by becoming the first black woman in Congress after an upset victory in 1968. Then Shirley Chisholm signed up for work as a census taker in Brooklyn, where she represented a range of struggling neighborhoods.
It was a thankless task; many of the “enumerators” for the 1970 census quit because so many poor black and Hispanic residents refused to answer questions or even open the door.
Their distrust in government ran deep, The Times reported, with some fearing that giving up their personal information would lead to genocide.
Ms. Chisholm, a daughter of immigrants from Barbados who studied American history with the zeal of a woman determined to shape it, understood such sentiments. She also embodied what was needed to bring those New Yorkers into the fold. It wasn’t pontificating. It wasn’t condescending, or scolding; it required the same charm and resolve she showed first as an educator, then as a politician.
“I do not see myself as a lawmaker, an innovator in the field of legislation,” she wrote in her 1970 autobiography, “Unbought and Unbossed.” “America has the laws and the material resources it takes to insure justice for all its people. What it lacks is the heart, the humanity, the Christian love that it would take.”
Our census article that ran on Aug. 1, 1970, relegated Ms. Chisholm’s role to a footnote, a single line in a lengthy story told from cities across the country.
As a result, this photograph of her looking resolute and formal, with her census bag and buttoned-up dress, was never published.
The distrust she aimed to combat back then in poor minority neighborhoods has not disappeared from the census process. Blacks and Hispanics still tend to be undercounted.
Ms. Chisholm, though, went on to appear in our pages more frequently: when she confronted congressional leaders over various issues; when she ran a long-shot campaign for president in 1972; when she announced her plans in 1977 to marry Arthur Hardwick, whom she met while serving in the New York State Assembly; when she died in 2005 at the age of 80.
But even though she was a groundbreaker who served seven terms in Congress, she never commanded the level of attention that other civil rights leaders from that era did. Perhaps it was because she was a woman; she often said she had faced more discrimination because of her gender than because of her race. Or perhaps she never would have wanted all that celebrity anyway.
“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 would think, that our society is not yet either just or free,” she wrote in her autobiography.
Putting it more simply in her later years, she said she did not want to be remembered as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, or to run for president, but rather as a black woman who “dared to be herself.”