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Arkansas native Maudelle Shirek was a longtime California-based civic activist who entered the political arena late in life. She won her first race for a seat on the Berkley, California, city council at the age of seventy-one, and when she retired at ninety-two, she was the oldest publicly elected official in the United States.
Maudelle Miller was born on June 18, 1911, in Jefferson County, the oldest of ten children of Eddie and Hattie Miller. She grew up on a farm, and her father was a school teacher. The granddaughter of slaves, she once witnessed the lynching of a relative. One longtime friend observed that Maudelle spent the first third of her life cooking, helping with the crops, and getting whatever formal education she could. During those years, she developed a love of cooking, especially vegetables; she won first prize at the county fair for having created thirty-three different tomato dishes. That passion never waned, and in her later years she could often be found preparing nutritious, vegetable-laden meals at the West Berkley Senior Center.
Like many African Americans, she fled the South in the 1940s looking for work in the wartime economy. She arrived in the east Bay Area of California in 1943. In the mid-1960s, she married Brownlee Shirek, a political activist with whom she worked on numerous campaigns for civil rights, senior rights, and fair housing throughout the region. She also worked for an end to apartheid in South Africa as well as for integration of the American military.
Shirek’s involvement in electoral politics was the direct product of her anger at being forced by the city manager to retire at age seventy-one from her position as director of the West Berkley Senior Center. Elected to eight terms on the city council as a representative of South Berkley, she served for twenty years, with part of her tenure including a stint as the city’s vice mayor. As a council member, she was known as a particularly effective advocate for the disadvantaged and the elderly. She also sought to encourage greater civic involvement by pushing for numerous citizens’ commissions. Shirek was also an early proponent of a needle-exchange program.
A mistaken interpretation of new rules for signatures on petitions for candidacy led to her being barred from the 2004 ballot, and after two decades on the Berkley Council she was forced to retire. When she did step down at the end of that year, she was the nation’s oldest publicly elected office holder.
Throughout her career, she was a beacon for others, with observers noting that she was more than just an office holder. Rather, she inspired generations of politicians and activists through her example and her willingness to fight but also to forget. As one reporter noted, she got “enraged over politics, but never at people,” and Congresswoman Barbara Lee called her a mentor and “my conscience,” noting that when she had a tough decision she would ask herself, “What would Maudelle do?” The Berkeley City Hall was renamed in Shirek’s honor in 2007.
Shirek, the woman known as the “godmother of progressive politics in Berkeley” and the “conscience of the Council,” died in a Vallejo hospice on April 11, 2013, at the age of 101.
For additional information:
Jones, Carolyn. “Berkeley: Ex-Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek Turns 100.” SFGate.com, June 18, 2011. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Berkeley-Ex-Councilwoman-Maudelle-Shirek-turns-2368031.php (accessed April 5, 2017).
Knobel, Lance. “Former Councilwoman Maudelle Shirek Dies, Aged 101.” Berkeleyside, April 16, 2013. http://www.berkeleyside.com/2013/04/16/long-serving-councilmember-maudelle-shirek-dies-aged-101/ (accessed April 5, 2017).
Oral history interview with Maudelle Shirek, 2002. African American Museum and Library at Oakland. https://archive.org/details/caolaam_000019 (accessed April 5, 2017).
Scherr, Judith. “Maudelle Shirek, Conscience of the Berkeley City Council, Dies at 101.” Mercury News, April 15, 2013. http://www.mercurynews.com/2013/04/15/maudelle-shirek-conscience-of-the-berkeley-city-council-dies-at-101/ (accessed April 5, 2017).
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated 5/11/2017
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