Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was born on February 14, 1874, to Hiram and Kate Spears in either Sumter, South Carolina or Little Compton, Rhode Island. Upon graduation from high school, she enrolled in Pembroke College, a women's college which is now part of Brown University. When she was twenty years old she began working for the Providence Watchman, a local Black newspaper, and remained there for about ten years.
Bass later moved to Los Angeles, California and began working for $5 a week as an “office girl” at a newspaper that was then called The Eagle. The paper’s office was nestled on Central Avenue, the “Black belt of the city” as The Eagle described it — a neighborhood full of churches, clubs and Black-owned businesses, and home to the West Coast jazz scene.
When the editor John J. Neimore became ill, he asked Bass to take over the operations of the newspaper. Shortly after Neimore's death, Bass learned that "this Black-founded newspaper was owned by a white man, who offered his support only if [she] would become his 'sweetheart.'” Rather than take him up on his offer, Bass borrowed $50 from a local store owner to purchase the deed, becoming the first African-American woman to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. She renamed the newspaper The California Eagle due to increasing social and political issues in the region.
Early on, Bass hired an experienced editor from The Topeka Plaindealer, J.B. Bass, who served as the managing editor of the paper. He would soon become her husband. As joint publishers, they grew The California Eagle into the most widely circulated Black newspaper on the West Coast with a circulation of 60,000.
The newspaper served as a source of both information and inspiration for the Black community, which was often ignored or negatively portrayed by the predominantly white press. It illuminated Black life in a way that was not illuminated in other papers, covering issues such as housing rights, labor rights, voting rights, and police brutality. It is also credited as pioneering multiethnic politics through its advocacy of Asian-American and Mexican-American civil rights in the 1940s.
Bass entered politics in the 1940s, running for the Los Angeles City Council under the slogan “Don’t Fence Me In” — the title of a popular song of that era that she repurposed to condemn housing discrimination. She had been a longtime Republican, but voted for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1936. She later denounced both parties for neglecting Black and women’s rights. She helped found the Independent Progressive Party of California in 1947, and pitched an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 1950.
Bass sold the newspaper in 1951 and co-founded Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a Black women’s group. In 1952, Bass became the first African-American woman nominated for Vice President, as a candidate of the Progressive Party. She was the running mate of lawyer Vincent Hallinan and their bid was launched on a platform of “peace and prosperity.” Though Bass did not win, she made history.
Bass retired to what was then a Black resort town southeast of Los Angeles, Lake Elsinore. During her retirement years, she maintained a community library in her garage for the young people in her neighborhood. It was a continuation of her long fight to give all people opportunities and education.
Considering the sum of her career as she was completing her autobiography, Forty Years (1960), Bass wrote: “It has been a good life that I have had, though a very hard one, but I know the future will be even better. And as I think back I know that is the only kind of life: In serving one's fellow man one serves himself best …”
To learn more about Mrs. Bass’ tremendous life and legacy, please visit: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/obituaries/charlotta-bass-vice-president-overlooked.html, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlotta_Bass, and https://laist.com/news/la-history/charlotta-bass-first-woman-of-color-to-run-for-us-vice-president. To view footage of Mrs. Bass, please visit: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/charlotta-spears-bass-first-black-woman-vp-nominee-epkd15/15441/.