I’m delighted that one of the outcomes of Kamala Harris’ historic achievement as the first Black woman on a major party ticket for vice president is that more people are now hearing about Charlotta Bass. I don’t believe it detracts from Senator Harris’ moment at all; learning about Charlotta Bass right now illuminates the long history of Black women’s leadership in civic life, as well as how often it is erased from history. If you have never heard of Charlotta Bass before now, you are not alone. Most people living in Los Angeles where she lived and worked for decades have never heard of her. That should be shocking given her many accomplishments over her career, and her prominence in the civic life of Los Angeles.
So by now you’ve heard Charlotta Bass was in fact the first Black woman to run for vice president, as the nominee on the progressive party ticket in 1952. Her life was full of trailblazing moments fighting racism and oppression--
- Publisher of the The California Eagle, largest newspaper for African-Americans on the west coast from 1912-1952
- Leader in both the U.N.I.A. and NAACP
- Fought to halt the production of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation
- Sued for libel by the KKK in 1921 and won the case
- A founder of the Industrial Business Council which promoted Black-owned businesses
- Member of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee protesting police brutality and advocating on behalf of the Mexican-American youth wrongly accused of murder
- First Black person to serve on a grand jury in Los Angeles (1943)
- First Black candidate to run for city council in Los Angeles (1945)
- A founder of the Home Protective Association fighting racial restrictive covenants
Even into her 90s Charlotta Bass continued to educate and advocate, establishing the Community Reading Room for Black and Jewish History, in Elsinore, CA.
Learning about Charlotta Bass literally changed the trajectory of my life. I would probably be learning about her now as well, instead of over 25 years ago, if it had not been for one of my teachers, Kent Kirkton. He was my thesis advisor at California State University in the 1990s when I was working on my masters in journalism. I was determined to write about gender bias in the news, and for probably two years, Kent kept saying to me, “you really should check out Charlotta Bass.” Finally, one day I made it down to the Southern California Library which “documents and makes accessible histories of struggles that challenge racism and other systems of oppression so we can all imagine and sustain possibilities for freedom.” They hold all of Bass’ papers, including her self-published memoir, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of Newspaper. In the forward she wrote:
“This forty year history of the development of Los Angeles from a small pueblo to a sprawling city which now crowds the city of the great empire state for first place in America, is written principally to show the important role early Negro pioneers played in its growth.”
That memoir of her life opened a whole new world to me. I realized how much I had NOT learned about the history of Black life in this country, the leadership, the activism, and organizing that Bass wrote about, and the systemic oppression and racism they fought. I never learned about the important role of the Black press particularly in the civil rights movement. Through her weekly column “On the Sidewalk,” Bass told the stories of the daily lives, successes and struggles of people in the Black community. She wrote frequently about economic empowerment, and was a champion of workers’ rights. I spent months in the library basement reading microfilm copies of The California Eagle, which chronicled the efforts of Bass and the Los Angeles Black community to fight for more equity and justice, in the context of the local and national issues of those decades:
- Anti-Lynching Campaigns
- Don’t shop where you can’t work
- Double Victory Movement
- Racial Restrictive Covenants, and more
I learned how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI monitored the activities of Black leaders and targeted the Black press. Bass was targeted for her progressive views and was accused of communism especially during the McCarthy era. I filed a Freedom of Information Act to get a copy of the FBI files of Charlotta Bass. The papers were hundreds of pages and stood nearly two feet tall. I couldn’t believe how much my education up to that point had been shaped by narratives that erased the contributions of Black women like Charlotta Bass, and was devoid of the history of racism in this country, and how Black Americans challenged it.
One of Charlotta Bass’ campaign slogans when she ran for vice-president was “win or lose; we win by raising the issues.” She was uniquely positioned to understand the truth in her statement. She knew from personal experience how raising issues-- through her activism and in the pages of The California Eagle-- actually made a difference.
There are historians and filmmakers who have researched the life of Charlotta Bass and know a lot more about her than I learned. My thesis focused on how Bass used the stories of everyday people in her community to advocate for social justice and equality. I became empowered by learning about the truth of our history, and I’ve been working on ways to use that history to challenge bigotry and hate ever since. I owe a debt of gratitude to my teachers--Kent who shined the light, and Charlotta Bass whose whole life is a lesson on how to be an upstander.
To learn more about Charlotta Bass:
- L.A. Race Woman: Charlotta Bass and the Complexities of Black Political Development in Los Angeles by Dr. Regina Freer who is working on a political biography of Bass.
- The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords, which our colleague Valerie Linson, Director of Communications at Facing History, worked on.
- The Southern California Library holds the papers of Charlotta Bass.