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HistoryHigh Moments In Black History: Charlotta Bass

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Raising Issues From Publishing to Politics

 

Watch History High's video on  Charlotta Bass!

 

On Wednesday January 20, 2021, the world witnessed a historic event, the swearing in of not only the first female vice president of the United States but even more importantly to the Black community we witnessed the first Black vice president of the United States while still giddy from celebrating the first Black president of the United States. But a little-known fact is there was another Black woman from California who also had her eye on the White House 69 years ago and her name was Charlotta Bass.

Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was a Black American activist, educator and newspaper publisher/editor. She was active in championing issues such as housing rights, police brutality, labor rights and voting rights. Charlotta was born on February 14, 1874 in Sumter, South Carolina to Hiram and Katie Spears. Charlotta was the sixth out of 11 children.

In her twenties Charlotta moved to Providence, Rhode Island where she was introduced to the newspaper business selling ads at the Providence Watchmen, a local Black owned newspaper. 

Armed with a decade of experience working at the newspaper in 1910, Charlotta left Rhode Island for California at the age of 36 due to health reasons which some report to have been asthma and arthritis. Charlotta took a job selling subscriptions at a newspaper called The Eagle. Owned by Black publisher/editor John Neimore, it was the first Black owned newspaper on the West Coast. The newspaper tackled important issues such as multiethnic politics. While Charlotta worked there Neimore became her mentor and in 1912 when he became ill, on his deathbed he bequeathed the newspaper to Charlotta. There are differing stories as to the details of Charlotta acquiring the paper but in the autobiography, she published in 1960, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of A Newspaper, she does confirm the dying request.

One theme that would remain constant in Charlotta’s life and work is that she was always able to align herself with people and publications that held the same views and worked towards the same goals as her. Even when she would sell the publication later it was purchased by a civil rights attorney.

The acquisition of the publication represented another first in Black history by making Charlotta the first Black woman to own a newspaper. Charlotta said in her memoir that this news was the “talk of the town” as the newspaper industry was at that time and still is a male dominated one and of course it was doubly unheard of for a Black woman to own a paper. Under Charlotta’s leadership the name of the paper was changed to The California Eagle. The paper was a source of information and inspiration for the black community and its goal was to expose the wrongs of society such as restrictive housing practices that said Blacks could own property but could not live in it. The Supreme Court would rule this practice to be unconstitutional in 1948. 

In 1914 Charlotta hired Joseph Blackburn Bass, a newspaperman from Kansas, who had been the founder of the Topeka Plaindealer and the Montana Plaindealer before moving to California to and becoming the California Eagle’s editor. Charlotta and Joseph married, and Joseph remained editor of the paper until his death in 1934. During their time together at the paper the Bass’ used the publication to fervidly fight discrimination. They took on such issues as the negative imagery portrayed in D. W. Griffith’s highly racist film The Birth of a Nation which, by the way, was originally called The Clansman when it opened in 1915 and it was the first movie shown in the White House, but that is a story for another blog. The Bass’ also won a libel suit against the KKK after being sued for publishing a letter from the clan of their plan to exterminate black leaders.

By 1925 The California Eagle had a circulation of 60,000 making it at the time the largest Black owned newspaper in the West. But, by 1934 The California Eagle as well as other Black owned newspapers were under investigation by the FBI as threats to national security. Charlotta was accused of being a Communist though no evidence existed to support that suspicion and as was common with many black activists during this time such as actor Paul Robeson (who would later endorse Charlotta’s Vice Presidential nomination) and later Dr. Martin Luther King. At the age of 91 Charlotta was still listed as a possible security threat.

After her husband’s death Charlotta continued to run the newspaper on her own and her participation in political activities increased. Although Charlotta had been a supporter of the Republican Party in 1936 she voted Democrat before she rejected both parties for not addressing civil rights issues. She started her own political career in 1945 when she ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council. In 1947 She helped to found the Independent Progressive Party of California and she ran for Congress as a member of the Progressive Party in 1950. In 1952 Charlotta Bass became the first Black female candidate for the office of vice president of the United States. She campaigned for peace with the Soviet Union, an end to the Korean War and greater attention on issues of civil and women’s rights. Although none of Charlotta’s political aspirations came to fruition as her campaign slogan said, “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues,” and by that standard Charlotta always won as she devoted her entire life and work to raising the issues.

In addition to Bass’ political aspirations and continued activism in 1943 she became the first Black member of a grand jury in the county court of Los Angeles.

Charlotta sold the paper in 1951 and ceased publication in 1964. In 1966 Charlotta had a stroke and entered the nursing home but during her retirement she created a library in her garage for the neighborhood as well as a voter registration center. Charlotta died in 1969 at the age of 95. She is buried with her husband in Boyle Heights, California in a grave that only bears his name. In Charlottas autobiography she gives this reflection on her own life, “In serving one’s fellow man one serves himself best.” Although we may not know Charlotta’s name we can see the fruits of her service in those who continue to fight for and gain representation and fairness.

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