Happy Black History Month! Read more about how our community is celebrating.
Happy Black History Month! While we must commit ourselves to being consistently mindful of the the integral, irreplaceable, and ongoing role of the Black community in our nation’s development, February affords us a dedicated chance to set aside time to collectively focus on it. In this month, we celebrate and honor the lives of Black heroes both living and past who have had and continue to have to work twice as hard for half the acknowledgement for their achievements and contributions.
Black leaders and innovators have helped assemble many of the modern institutions that we hold dear, and through this trailblazing work, they have made our nation stronger. In a very real way, Black Americans quite literally saved our democracy this past election, and it is especially important this year that we center ourselves around the fact that Black history IS American history.
Although progress in our democracy often crawls along far slower than we would like, this year marks a momentous juncture in our nation’s history. Vice President Kamala Harris was just inaugurated as the first Black person and first woman to ever assume the second highest office in the land, and I know that she will inspire millions of young women, especially women of color, to follow in her footsteps.
While it is critical that we reflect on the national events that show we continue to make progress despite the reprehensible actions of those who would take our nation backwards, I wanted to take a moment to update you on what is going on locally to celebrate the month as well.
The Black History Project of Lexington Portrait Banners
Throughout February, if you are in or around Lexington Center, I encourage you to check out the The Black History Portrait Banners. Compiled by the Association of Black Citizens of Lexington (ABCL), these banners feature 24 prominent Black citizens, both local and beyond, who have shaped the history and culture of Lexington. These visual tributes were unveiled at a wonderful virtual ceremony put on by ABCL in January, and you can watch a recording of the event on LexMedia’s website here. As a part of the festivities, I was honored to speak about Shirley Chisholm, an "unbought and unbossed" activist who was the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. You can find my full remarks included below.
This session, I am excited to have introduced HD.272, An Act designating July 8th as Massachusetts Emancipation Day a.k.a. Quock Walker Day. This legislation is identical to a bill that was originally crafted and filed by Senator Cindy Friedman last session (refiled this session as SD.141), and I am thrilled to be working alongside her to advance it in the House.
It is little known that on July 8th, 1783, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Constitution of the Commonwealth’s Declaration of Rights rendered slavery unconstitutional. Quock Walker, who was born to enslaved Black parents in Massachusetts, was the driving force behind this ruling. At 28 years old, after being promised his freedom on multiple occasions, Walker self-emancipated. When his former enslaver then found him, Walker sued for his freedom, and in the subsequent trial, the jury found that Walker was a free man. This critical decision served as the precedent that ended slavery in the Commonwealth on constitutional grounds and led to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to abolish slavery. In light of his significant place in our history, it is altogether fitting that we should officially mark this monumental step toward justice each year.
Shirley Chisholm Remarks
Note: these remarks can be viewed starting at 24:35 on the video stream, "20210114-ABCL-BlackHistoryPortraitBannerUnveiling" found on LexMedia's website
As an elected official, I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me. As an elected official from Lexington, I feel a special obligation to my work given the pivotal role our community played in the founding of our democracy. And as a female elected official, I owe the courageous suffragettes and women who have been elected to office before me a special debt of gratitude.
“Firsts” in the realm of politics open the eyes of the public to what is possible. Seeing oneself reflected in one’s elected officials sparks the imagination and provides a model for others to follow. Being the “first” takes courage. It takes resolve. There is always resistance to the “first” because it is new. It means those who have always held power previously might now hold less.
The courage and resolve required to be the “first” cannot be overstated. While I am the first woman to represent Lexington in the State House, my journey was far easier than the journey that U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm had to make. I joined a strong and numerous cohort of women already serving as elected officials in the State House, whereas Shirley Chisholm was only the second Black woman ever elected to the New York State Legislature when she took her seat in 1964.
She could have stopped there, satisfied with being at the vanguard of women of color taking their places in the halls of power in Albany, but as she showed time and again throughout her life, there was more work for her to do. So, she took her drive to improve her community and make life better for folks like her and got herself elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, she truly was the “first,” the only Black woman ever elected to that body, at that time.
Over the past two years, I have looked to Congresswoman Chisholm as a role model for how I have operated. To quote her describing her thoughts on the notion that first term Reps should just lay low, she said, and I quote, “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to focus attention on the nation’s problems.” As women in public life, we are often told to wait our turn, we are taught to be seen and not heard. As a Black woman in public life in the 60’s, Congresswoman Chisholm certainly heard these discouraging messages time and again. But to quote her campaign slogan, Shirley Chisholm was the “unbought and unbossed” Congresswoman who often referred to herself as “fighting Shirley.” She used this motivation and her leadership opportunities to fight for legislation that advanced racial and gender equality. She fought to protect federal support for education and daycare programs, including Head Start.
Born into a working-class family in Brooklyn to immigrant parents, Chisholm started off as a nursery school teacher in the 1940s and, bucking the norms of her day, advanced through her life to eventually run for President in 1972. Her candidacy helped to forever change the conversation and open the doors of what is possible. Over the course of her career, she co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, as well as the National Women’s Political Caucus—all of which are still active to this day.
Her work during her time in Congress, her work during her campaign for president, and her work in retirement remain the gold standard model for women in public life today. If it were not for Shirley Chisholm and other pioneering female leaders, I undoubtedly would not be where I am today and we would not be standing on the verge of inaugurating our nation’s first female African American and Asian American Vice President. It is with a great sense of pride and optimism that I honor Shirley Chisholm’s career and her example, and I thank you all at ABCL for your hard work in putting together this terrific event this evening to celebrate our Nation’s African American heroes.