Mikki Wosencroft cried out after Kamala Harris was accepted as the democratic Vice President . It gave her goosebumps to see how far we’ve come as a nation. The moment reminded her of her great great great aunt, Charlotta Bass, who ran for the position of vice president more than 50 years ago in 1952. Charlotta Bass was the first black woman to serve as vice-president on the Democratic Party ticket. She accepted her nomination from 2,000 people on Chicago’s Westside.
She was a member of the Progressive Party and was endorsed by civil right luminaries like Paul Robeson and W.E.B Dubois. “This is a historic moment in the American political culture. Historic for myself, for my people, for all women”, said Bass. It was the first time in the history of the U.S. that a black woman ran for the second highest office in the country. She accepted her nomination in front of 2,000 delegates on the westside of Chicago.
She ran alongside Vincent Hallinan, a San Francisco lawyer. It ended up being a long-shot bid that would only win 140,000 votes. They did not win the campaign. However, this lost did not hinder Charlotta Bass. As Bass’s campaign slogan stated, “Win or Lose, We Win by Raising the Issues.” The Voting Rights Act would not be in effect for another decade when Bass spoke that day. In addition, it would be two more years before the segregation of schools would be considered unconstitutional . She used her career as an editor and publisher of the Eagle to address these issues. Later, she addressed these issues as a political candidate
Even though Charlotta Bass did all of these things during her time, she’s hardly a household name, There are a few copies of her 1960 autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper. She lived an extraordinary life as a journalist and activist and laid the groundwork for figures like Kamala Harris. “We tend to be so fixated on winners or losers. Winning wasn’t always the point for Charlotta Bass,” said Martha S. Jones, a historian and the author of the forthcoming “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All.” “She was trying to shape the political agenda more broadly.”
It is assumed that Charlotta Amanda Spears was born to Kate and Hiram Spears. Kate and Hiram were both descendants of enslaved people from 1880 Sumter, S.C. Her father was a brick mason. After high school, Charlotta relocated to Rhode Island to live with her brother, Ellis, who owned two restaurants and delivery service for ice trucks. “Sumter, South Carolina, could be a dangerous place for young women of color,” said Wosencroft, who grew up in Providence, R.I.. In fact, Providence was home to several members of the Spears family. While there Bass enrolled at Pembroke, now a part of Brown University’s women’s campus. She got a job selling subscriptions for a small Black newspaper. Eventually, she would hear the call to move to California. She wanted the drier environment(good for her arthritis and asthma) and the better life Los Angelos offered.
“Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high,” Du Bois wrote in 1913, after a wave of migration to the area.
As an office girl at The Eagle in 1910, Bass started working for $5 a week, selling subscriptions. The paper’s office was situated on Central Avenue, “Black belt of the city” as The Eagle described it. Back then the area was full of churches, bars, and businesses run by Black peopl. It was also home to the jazz culture of the West Coast. “The Eagle illuminated Black life in a way that was not illuminated in other papers,” said Erin Aubry Kaplan, a journalist and author whose uncle worked for the paper in the 1950s.
But Los Angeles, as DuBois had put it, was not just “orange blossoms” and “beautiful homes.” The paper’s publisher begged her to take ownership of the company during his battle with illness. As a result, Bass found herself documenting a more complicated version of racial inequity. “Who had ever heard of a woman running a newspaper?” Bass wrote in her autobiography. The black founded magazine was owned by a white man. He only wanted to help if Bass became his sweetheart. ” “Get out, you filthy puppy! ” she told him. Because of this, she borrowed $50 from a local store owner to buy the deed.” For the next 40 years, Bass threw herself into her new role as owner, editor, and publisher. According to Regina Freer, she used the newspaper to advance a range of social justice causes .
J.B. Bass, a “big man from Kansas” who would become her husband, recruited an accomplished editor from The Topeka Plaindealer. However, she wrote, there was no time for romance. They expanded The Eagle into the largest-circulating Black newspaper on the West Coast as joint publishers. After the death of her husband in 1934, she published the paper on her own for almost two decades. Bass condemned in The Eagle’s pages the Hollywood production of “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and supported a movement known as “Don’t Spend Where You Can’t Work,” in the 1930s. That urged readers to boycott shops that failed to attract Black staff. She pushed to attract black nurses from hospitals and campaigned against discriminatory housing agreements.
With front-page stories like “Trigger-Happy Cop Freed After Slaying Youth,” she also focused widely on police brutality. “I don’t believe in the concept of ‘ahead of her time’. I think she was right on time,” said Susan D. Anderson. Anderson is a historian, and curator at the California African American Museum. According to her, Bass had very sophisticated ideas about what the United States could be.
Her views more than once made her a target. Once, eight Klan members emerged late at night in her offices in 1925. They were mad she wrote about a covert attempt by the Ku Klux Klan to stage a car crash involving local black politicians. A bespectacled Bass — “the sweetest-looking of little ladies,” Anderson said —pulled a gun out of her desk. Never had Bass held a gun before— “and wasn’t quite sure which end to point at the intruders,” she later wrote. She had worked it out, and the party was promising a “hasty retreat.” “Mrs. Bass, one of these days you are going to get me killed,” her husband would often say. To which she would reply, “Mr. Bass, it will be for a good cause.”
In the 1940s, Bass entered politics, campaigning under the slogan “Don’t Fence Me In” for the Los Angeles City Council. “Don’t Fence Me In” was the title of a famous song from that period that she repurposed to oppose housing segregation. She was a Republican for many years, but in 1936 she voted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, and later condemned both sides for neglecting the rights of women and black people. In 1947, she helped found the California Independent Progressive Party. Later in 1950, she pitched an unsuccessful bid for Congress. (This Progressive Party, although it shared a name, was distinct from the more popular one established in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt.)
Many of Bass’ values, such as human rights, organized labor, redirecting military budgets to social needs, universal health care, may have been called Democratic Socialism in today’s words, said Anne Rapp. Yet they were progressive in that period, and Bass became the target of federal oversight that would last until her death. Rapp is a scholar who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Bass.
“Her F.B.I. file is several reams thick,” said Toni Spears Scott, a great-great-niece. The reputation of Bass as “disloyal” caused the N.A.A.C.P. of California to demolish her membership card, and the Black sorority, Iota Phi Lambda, to withdraw her honorary membership.
Furthermore, her international travel was restricted, and she was accompanied to conferences overseas by C.I.A. agents. “When I was growing up, our family only mentioned her in whispers,” Scott said. In 1951, Bass sold The Eagle and co-founded Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a black community of women. She and Hallinan unveiled their White House bid on a “peace and prosperity” forum the next year. Hallinan was best known for his defense of of Harry Bridges, a union activist who was accused of perjury. In the meantime, Hallinan was sentenced for contempt of court to six months in prison, which is where he was when the 1952 movement started.
Therefore, Bass campaigned alone, preaching in New York at the Baptist Church and in Detroit to the care staff. A member of her group told a reporter at a Baltimore news conference “we do not expect to win.” “Please don’t say that,” Bass said. “After all, I am the candidate.” Unfortunately, Bass would not win. Yet she would make history and her relentless quest for equality would reach the national spotlight for a fleeting period.
However, after her lost Bass did not let her lost affect her desire to help her community. After her campaign, Bass retired and moved to Lake Elsinore, what was then a Black tourist town southeast of Los Angeles. She transformed her garage into a neighborhood reading space and registration place for voters. On April 12, 1969, she was confirmed to have died of a cerebral hemorrhage. “I never got to meet her,” Scott, her great-great-niece, said, “but her spirit resides within me and many of the women in our family,”
Find more images of Bass here.