Born on September 24, 1931 in St. Louis, Missouri
Congresswoman; longest term of service for an African American woman in Congress
After winning the special election in 1973 to fill the vacancy left by the death of her husband, Cardiss Collins went on to become the longest serving black woman in Congress. She served as the representative for Illinois’ Seventh Congressional District for over 20 years, distinguishing herself as an effective policy maker, advocate of women and minorities, and a strong defender of civil rights.
A trailblazer, she was the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress from the state of Illinois. She was also the first woman and first African-American to serve as Democratic Whip-at-Large. In 1979, she served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Between 1983 and 1990, she was the only black woman serving in the House of Representatives.
Collins was born on September 24, 1931 in St. Louis, Missouri, the only child of Finley and Rosia Mae Cardiss Robertson. The family moved to Detroit when Cardiss was ten years old. After graduation from Detroit’s High School of Commerce, she moved to Chicago to find a job.
She began her professional career as a stenographer with the Illinois Department of Labor, while also attending Northwestern University. Her studies in accounting led to a position as auditor for the Illinois Department of Revenue. About this time, she met her husband, George Washington Collins. They were married in 1958, and a year later became the proud parents of their son, Kevin.
Collins gained her first political experience in the party organization in Chicago when she served as committeewoman of the Twenty-fourth Ward Regular Democratic Organization. She also participated in her husband’s various campaigns for alderman, committeeman, and U.S. Representative. Tragically, her husband was killed in a plane crash on December 8, 1972. Following his death, Mayor Daley immediately urged Cardiss Collins to run for her husband’s seat; she won by a comfortable margin on June 5, 1973.
In the three decades that followed, Collins served on a number of important committees, including the Subcommittee on Manpower and Housing, and later as chair of the Subcommittee on Government Activities and Transportation where she was at the forefront of congressional efforts to increase airport security and air safety. She has also battled discriminatory hiring practices in the private sector, and championed the rights of women, the poor, and minorities.
An advocate of greater minority opportunities in advertising, Collins introduced the Non-Discrimination Act in 1986. Ten years later, the American Advertising Foundation established the Cardiss Collins Scholarship for Diversity in Advertising at the University of Illinois. The endowment annually awards a four-year scholarship to a black student pursing a career in advertising.
Collins has also been a vocal critic of federal agencies that do not supply information regarding goals and timetables of their affirmative action programs, as required by law. In 1985, she called on Congress to cut funding to agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal Trade Commission, both of which had refused to comply with requirements of the civil rights provision.Despite the fact that she easily won re-election to her seat each time, in 1997, after 24 years in Congress, Representative Collins decided not to seek another term. She has settled in Alexandria, Virginia and is enjoying retirement with her son and granddaughter.
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