The late Cardiss Collins did not choose a life in politics, but tragedy thrust her into the role in the early ’70’s. As a result, Collins became the first Black woman to represent the Midwest in the U.S. Congress.
Collins was born on September 24, 1931 in St. Louis, Mo. Her family relocated to Detroit when she turned 10. Collins then attended Northwestern University in Illinois, and worked for the city of Chicago as a revenue auditor for the Illinois State Department of Revenue.
Collins’ husband, U.S. Congressman George Collins, was appointed to office after the sudden death of Congressman Daniel Ronan in 1970. He served until his untimely death in December 1972 when a plane Congressman Collins was riding on crashed near Midway Airport in Chicago.
The Democratic Party swiftly sought out Mrs. Collins to fill the vacant seat. Initially, she was reluctant. The couple had a 13-year-old son at the time and, in her own words, she was also shy and didn’t seek the spotlight. But after running a brief campaign, she won both the Democratic Party primary and the general election handily.
Her first few years in Congress was rocky but she blossomed in the role, championing women’s health and welfare issues. She ultimately became chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Collins also made history by becoming the first Black person and the first woman to become Whip-At-Large for the Democratic Party. She served the people of Illinois for 25 years in the seat until stepping down in 1997. For many years, Collins was the only Black woman serving in Congress.
Collins died in Alexandria, Virginia in 2013 at the age of 81.
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