by Sharon Chiang
In honor of the last week of Caribbean Heritage Month, we here at NALP have collected biographies of some notable elected officials of Caribbean descent who have served their country and changed the face of American leadership.
Shirley Chisholm: First Caribbean (and African American) Congresswoman
"Service is the rent that you pay for room on this earth." Shirley Chisholm was the first African American of Caribbean descent ever elected to Congress. Her love for public service is evident through her dedication to advancing women and minorities. Chisholm grew up in New York City, Brooklyn, and at one point, Barbados with her grandmother Emaline Seale. Her father was from British Guiana and her mother from Barbados. Although Chisholm spent most her childhood in Barbados, in 1946 she returned to the U.S. and attended Brooklyn College. After college, she continued her education at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College where she earned a Master’s degree in elementary education. After working as a teacher, she became involved in grassroots organizing and with the Unity Democratic Club where she forged her community ties that made it possible for her to win a 1964 bid for a New York State Assembly seat. In 1968, she ran as the Democratic candidate for New York’s 12th district congressional seat, and became the first African American woman elected to Congress. During her tenure, she focused on bills pertaining to childcare and women, and advocated for better treatment of Haitian refugees during President Carter’s term. Chisholm would go on to serve in Congress for seven terms and, in 1984, help form the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW).
David Paterson: First Afro-Jamaican Governor
David Paterson’s Caribbean roots stem from his father’s half Afro-Jamaican heritage. Paterson’s biography is truly inspiring. As a newborn he developed a serious ear infection that damaged his left eye and limited his vision in his right, leaving young Paterson legally blind. Despite his blindness, however, Paterson was able to graduate from Columbia University and study law at Hofstra University. He went on to work in the Queens District Attorney’s Office as an assistant district attorney and run for the State Senate at the age of 31. Paterson eventually became New York’s first Afro-Jamaican Lieutenant Governor and later the governor of New York. Today, Paterson still continues his role as a public servant as a member of the Democratic National Committee and as a board member of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. In addition to his political work, his experience with his disability has inspired him to be an advocate of the American Foundation for the Blind.
Colin Powell: First Jamaican U.S. Secretary of State.
Colin Powell was born in Harlem, New York to Jamaican immigrant parents, Luther and Maud Powell. After attending various New York City public schools, he enrolled in City College of New York to study geology and later drastically changed the direction of his career by joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Powell became the commander of his unit’s drill team and later, the 2nd lieutenant of the US Army after his graduation. Powell returned from the army, earning his MBA from George Washington University and was promptly assigned to work at the Office of Management and Budget under the Nixon administration. When Reagan became President, Powell was appointed as his National Security Advisor, advising the President on international affairs, specifically those with the Soviet Union. In 1992, President George H. W Bush appointed Colin Powell to be Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff where he oversaw 28 military and political crises, including the infamous Operation Desert Storm. Powell’s extensive military experience would lead President George W. Bush to appoint him as the U.S. Secretary of State, making Powell the first U.S. Secretary of State of Jamaican descent.