OAKLAND -- Rep. Barbara Lee was a young woman with a large afro and big ambitions when she first met Shirley Chisholm at Mills College in 1972. Chisholm, the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, told students at Mills she was running for president.
Lee, D-Oakland, expressed interest in volunteering for the campaign. Chisholm told her, "Little girl, the first thing you have to do is register to vote. Then you have to get on the inside and help us."
So began a 33-year friendship, which Lee celebrated Saturday, the first day of Black History Month, when she helped unveil a commemorative postage stamp honoring Chisholm. The event drew a crowd of approximately 500 that packed Mills College's Rothwell Center. An overflow crowd of about 100 watched a televised feed from an adjoining patio.
Also on hand for the unveiling were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, former Rep. Lynn Woolsey and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan.
"It's so appropriate that this unveiling is happening at Mills College," Pelosi said, noting that Chisholm, who was elected from New York in 1968 and served seven terms, was the first African-American to run for president, and the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. "She made history, but more than that she made progress."
Lee and other Mills students organized on behalf of Chisholm's 1972 presidential bid. "We went to (the Democratic National Convention in) Miami as Shirley Chisholm delegates," Lee said, "and we took 10 percent of the vote."
When Lee decided to run for elected office, Chisholm mentored and encouraged her. In a pamphlet that was distributed at Saturday's event, Lee wrote about the victory ball following her win in the 1996 state Senate race.
"Mrs. C announced that she knew one day I would be a member of Congress," Lee wrote. "After overcoming my initial shock, I asked her what she meant. Mrs. C replied in her usual stern tone, 'I can see things that others don't.'"
Lee was elected to Congress in 1998. Since her arrival in Washington, D.C., she has worked tirelessly to honor her friend. First she enlisted Pelosi's help in getting a portrait of Chisholm commissioned and hung in the Capitol. During Women's History Month in 2001, Lee authored a resolution honoring Chisholm. It passed 415-0.
Chisholm died on New Year's Day 2005.
The stamp, Lee said, was an "uphill battle."
"Four years into it the Postal Service told me, 'That can't happen until someone's been dead for 10 years.' I said, 'Why didn't you tell me that before?' We started all over again."
According to the USPS stamp subject selection criteria, there no longer is a posthumous waiting period for honoring "men and women who have made extraordinary contributions to American society or culture."
The unveiling of the stamp was followed by a forum on women's economic empowerment, moderated by groundbreaking African-American TV journalist Belva Davis.
Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.