Former Congresswoman Cardiss Collins, 81, a legendary figure in Illinois and national politics, died Sunday Feb. 3 from complications of pneumonia.

Collins represented Illinois’ 7th Congressional District, which includes Austin and the greater West Side, from the early 1970s until her retirement in 1995. She had been living in Arlington Va., since retiring.

A legendary figure not just in Illinois but nationally, Collins was the first black woman elected to Congress from Illinois and the Midwest. She later served in leadership roles in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democratic Party. For many years, she was the only black woman serving in Congress.

A personal tragedy brought Collins to the House in 1973, when she was elected to Congress following the death of her husband, George Collins, who had been representing the district. What followed was a 23-year career in the U.S. House for Collins, a pioneer among women holding elected office in Illinois.

Her successor, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, ran and lost twice against Collins. He released a statement early Tuesday after learning of her death.

“I have been informed that over the weekend my predecessor, former 7th Congressional District Congresswoman Cardiss Collins died of natural causes. During her more than two decades in Congress, Jet Magazine hailed her as a trailblazer. … For nearly a decade after her election she was the only African-American woman in the Congress. … We appreciate her service and mourn her death,” Davis said.

Despite his own popularity and clout in Chicago politics as a former 29th Ward alderman and a Harold Washington disciple, Davis could not unseat the formidable congresswoman. Davis, who was a Cook County commissioner at the time, was able to win the seat in ’96 after her retirement.

Collins won a Democratic Primary special election in ’73 — winning roughly 80 percent of the vote — following her husband’s death. She won by an even larger margin, more than 90 percent, in the general election, defeating her Republican opponent and an independent candidate.

Covering parts of Cook County from the West and South sides to suburban areas, including Oak Park, the district was redrawn from the sixth to the seventh after she took office.

She was elected to 12 terms, becoming one of the longest-serving women in Congress. Davis challenged her in the 1984 and 1986 Democratic primaries before beating back nearly a dozen candidates in the 1996 primary to easily win the seat in the general election.

In his statement, Davis praised Collins for her efforts to curtail credit fraud against women, advocating for gender equity in college sports, and reforming federal child care facilities.

Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) described Collins as an “awesome woman” with a phenomenal legacy.

Graham, who attended George W. Collins High School on the West Side — named after Collins’ husband — is astounded by the breadth of Collins’ work in politics.

“I didn’t know the full depth of her accomplishments. Wow, what a true pioneer, who really needs to be recognized,” Graham said. “She should have been recognized so much earlier for her accomplishments. It’s a pretty awesome job that she’s done. I’m really happy to be following an America leader on the West Side of Chicago in the area she served.”

Born Cardiss Hortense Robertson on Sept. 24, 1931, in St. Louis, she worked in a mattress factory after graduating from Detroit High School of Commerce, according to her congressional biography. Her father Finley was a laborer, and her mother, Rosia Mae Robertson, a nurse.

Collins attended night classes at Northwestern University, earning a business certificate in 1966 and a diploma in professional accounting a year later. She remained in Chicago after graduating, working for the Illinois Department of Labor as a secretary. She later worked with the Illinois Department of Revenue as an auditor until her election to Congress.

She married George Washington Collins in 1958. The couple had a son, Kevin. Collins became active in politics, working for various city and statewide campaigns. A World War II veteran, George Collins won a special election to the House in 1970, filling the seat held by Daniel J. Ronan, who had died. George went on to become one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Shortly after winning his second term, George was killed, along with some 40 other passengers, in a December 1972 plane crash near Midway Airport.

“I never gave politics a thought for myself,” she would later say, recalling that time period. “When people started proposing my candidacy right after the crash, I was in too much of a daze to think seriously about running.”

She would eventually seek and win the seat. After winning, Collins vowed to “provide better living and working conditions for people [on Chicago’s West Side] and other low- and moderate-income people throughout the country.”

Collins rose to even greater national prominence from 1979 to ’81 as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, becoming only the second woman at the time to hold that leadership position.

Upon deciding to retire in ’95, Collins said she wanted to spend more time with her family, namely her young granddaughter.

“I’m going to be 65 next year, and that’s the time many people retire,” she told reporters at the time.

But Collins vowed to remain active in Democratic politics. She was an advocate for the poor and middle class, for African Americans and women. Her life and legacy has only grown brighter over time.

Ellyn Fortino contributed to this article.

A career of accomplishments

Just a sampling of Rep. Collins’ accomplishments in Congress:

  • Collins introduced the Equality in Athletic Disclosure Act on Feb. 17, 1993. The amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 directed colleges and universities to publicize the rate of program participation by gender. In recognition of her commitment to gender equity in athletics, Collins was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.
  • During her first term in Congress, she served on the Committee on Government Operations (later Government Reform and Oversight).
  • Collins chaired two Government Operations subcommittees: Manpower and Housing and Government Activities and Transportation. As chair of the latter subcommittee from 1983 to 1991, Collins worked to improve safety in air travel and fought for stricter controls on the transportation of toxic materials. She eventually rose to the position of Ranking Democrat of the full committee during the 104th Congress (1995–1997).
  • Served on the Committee on International Relations (later Foreign Affairs) from 1975 to 1980, the District of Columbia Committee during the 95th Congress (1977–1979), and the influential Committee on Energy and Commerce (later Commerce) from 1981–1997.
  • Collins was the first African American and woman selected as a Democratic Whip At-Large.
  • During the 96th Congress (1979–1981), Collins became the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus as only the second woman to hold the leadership position, as well as just the fourth black woman ever to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • In the 1980s, she continued her defense of affirmative action by drawing attention to the hiring practices of U.S. airlines, which rarely placed African Americans in professional positions.
  • Collins’s push for equality in the aviation industry helped pave the way for an amendment to the Airport and Airway Safety, Capacity, and Expansion Act of 1987, requiring that 10 percent of all concession stands in airports be run by minority- and women-owned businesses.
  • She also worked to prevent federal tax write-offs for advertising firms that discriminated against minority-owned media companies.
  • Collins co-sponsored the Universal Health Care Act and the Health Security Act in 1993.