The Making of a Young Intellectual

The following is an excerpt from Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics by Anastasia C. Curwood, available wherever books are sold.

The Making of a Young Intellectual

Although Shirley Chisholm would eventually be a formidable Black feminist political force, young Shirley St. Hill was ambivalent about pursuing politics during college and her early career. She was inspired by Mary McLeod Bethune’s leadership and wanted to emulate it, but she was focused on earning a degree that would lead directly to professional employment. She did not think that she had a future in electoral politics and thought she could make change by following in Bethune’s footsteps and becoming an educator. Teaching was one of the few professional opportunities for bright Black women, she knew, and she made plans to start teaching after college. She chose a sociology major even though she excelled at and was energized by political science.

She made these choices in part because she carried the hopes of her family on her small shoulders. She became the first person in her family to attend a college or university. Eventually, two of his four daughters fulfilled Charles St. Hill’s hopes by winning scholarships for college; not having to use their savings to pay tuition allowed Charles and Ruby to purchase a brownstone on Prospect Place for $10,000. Shirley was offered scholarships to four institutions, including Vassar and Oberlin. She wanted to go out of the city to a residential campus, but boarding away from home was not included in the scholarships and was expensive. She reluctantly enrolled instead at the city’s public Brooklyn College (BC), which had no tuition and no residence halls, and lived with her family. The campus, built of red brick, lush with trees, was relatively young, having been opened at its present site just five years before. BC was free and thus accessible to students from all class backgrounds, but women had to possess a higher grade point average than men to gain admission. Shirley was excited by the possibility of “making it” as her parents wanted for her. Her grandmother had always told her that “determination, not distinction,” would prevail—and Shirley thought that her perseverance and determination gave her a “strong character” and were the reasons for her success at college and, later, in politics.

As a “bookworm,” Shirley did not often attend parties, although when she did she surprised the boys with her impressive dancing abilities.

In addition to providing a credential for a professional career, going to Brooklyn College transformed Shirley. It was the “opening of my entire personality,” and the moment of realization that her ideas were worthy of attention. While she characterized herself as having been somewhat introverted in school since her return to the United States, college life encouraged her to speak out more. Having read ten or eleven books per month between ages ten and eighteen, she had a lot to talk about. She was active in many student organizations and became known as a crack debater. As a “bookworm,” Shirley did not often attend parties, although when she did she surprised the boys with her impressive dancing abilities. Because of her school performance, she gained a reputation as being “too intellectual” to date. But her studious habits did not mean that she was uninterested in socializing or in finding a beau. She was sometimes ashamed of her clothes because they were not as new or fashionable as those of other students, so dating and socializing likely led to some embarrassment. And she was unwilling to sacrifice her academics for the pursuit of romance. She spent many hours in the library instead of at parties, she explained later, because she did not want to squander her opportunity to get a good education. Still, she eventually experienced her first serious love affair during her senior year.

Even though Shirley declined to major in political science or plan for a political career, she continued to develop her Black feminist power political outlook. Through her extracurricular activities with other Black men and women students and her voracious reading, she built personal and intellectual commitments to the antiracist and feminist thinkers of the past. She practiced her speaking skills through debating and developed political savvy through coursework and conversation. And she even chose teaching as a vocation in part because, as she admitted, she liked to be in charge. Shirley’s college and early career years did not represent an inevitable march toward her future accomplishments; rather, she determined which of her skills were the strongest and assessed how she could use them for the common good.

Anastasia C. Curwood is associate professor of history and director of African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Stormy Weather: Middle-Class African American Marriages between the Two World Wars.