This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
When Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president last month, Mikki Wosencroft cried. “It gave me goose bumps to see how far we’ve come,” she said. She was thinking of her great-great-great-aunt, Charlotta Bass.
More than 50 years earlier, in 1952, Bass was the first Black woman to run for vice president, on the Progressive Party ticket.
Taking the stage to accept her nomination before some 2,000 delegates in an auditorium on Chicago’s West Side, Bass — who would receive endorsements from civil rights luminaries like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois — declared: “This is a historic moment in American political life.
“Historic for myself, for my people, for all women. For the first time in the history of this nation a political party has chosen a Negro woman for the second-highest office in the land.”
It was a long-shot bid alongside Vincent Hallinan, a San Francisco lawyer, that would garner just 140,000 votes. (The Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon would win in a landslide against Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman.) But that wasn’t the point. As Bass’s campaign slogan stated, “Win or Lose, We Win by Raising the Issues.”
When Bass spoke that day, the Voting Rights Act would not exist for another decade. It would be another two years before school segregation would be ruled unconstitutional.
Bass raised these and many other issues over a long career as editor and publisher of the West Coast’s oldest Black newspaper, The California Eagle, and later as a political candidate.
And yet she is hardly a household name. Few copies of her 1960 autobiography, “Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper,” are in circulation. The Eagle’s offices, in what was once the heart of the Black community in Los Angeles, on Central Avenue, is now an appliance store. And Bass’s grave, at the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, does not bear her name. (It names her husband, Joseph Blackburn Bass, with whom she shares a plot.)
Still, Bass led a remarkable life as a journalist and activist that, in many ways, helped lay the foundation for a figure like Ms. Harris, the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be nominated on a major-party ticket.
“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.”
Charlotta Amanda Spears is believed to have been born in Sumter, S.C., around 1880 to Kate and Hiram Spears, descendants of enslaved people. Her father was a brick mason.
Charlotta moved to Rhode Island after high school to live with her brother Ellis, who owned two restaurants and an ice truck delivery service. “Sumter, South Carolina, could be a dangerous place for young women of color,” said Wosencroft, who grew up in Providence, R.I., where many members of the Spears family still live.
Bass enrolled at Pembroke, the women’s college that is now a part of Brown University, and got a job selling subscriptions for a local Black newspaper.
But Los Angeles came calling — for its drier climate (Bass suffered from arthritis and asthma) as well as for its promise of a better life. “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,” DuBois wrote of Los Angeles in 1913, following a surge of migration to the city.
Bass began working for $5 a week as an “office girl” at The Eagle in 1910, selling subscriptions. 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.
“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 was not all “orange blossoms” and “beautiful homes,” as DuBois had put it.
Bass would soon find herself documenting a more complex version of racial inequity, after the paper’s founder and editor asked her to take over as he lay dying.
“Who had ever heard of a woman running a newspaper?” Bass wrote in her autobiography. “It was the talk of the town.”
As it turned out, this Black-founded newspaper was owned by a white man, who offered his support only if Bass would become his “sweetheart.” “Get out, you dirty dog!” she told him.
She borrowed $50 from a local store owner to purchase the deed.
For the next 40 years, Bass threw herself into her new role as owner, editor and publisher, using the newspaper to advance a range of social justice causes, said Regina Freer, a political scientist at Occidental College who is working on a biography of Bass.
She hired an experienced editor from The Topeka Plaindealer, J.B. Bass, a “big man from Kansas” who would become her husband. But there was no time for romancing, she wrote. As joint publishers, they grew The Eagle into the largest-circulation Black newspaper on the West Coast. She would run the paper on her own for about two decades after her husband’s death in 1934.
In the pages of The Eagle, Bass denounced the Hollywood production of “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), which glorified the Ku Klux Klan, and, in the 1930s, endorsed a campaign known as “Don’t Spend Where You Can’t Work,” urging readers to boycott stores that refused to hire Black employees. She pushed for hospitals to hire Black nurses and fought against racist housing covenants.
She also reported extensively on police brutality, with front-page headlines like “Trigger-Happy Cop Freed After Slaying Youth.”
“I don’t believe in the concept of ‘ahead of her time’ — I think she was right on time,” said Susan D. Anderson, a historian and curator at the California African American Museum. “She had very sophisticated ideas about what the United States could be.”
More than once, her views made her a target.
In 1925, after she wrote of a clandestine plot by theKu Klux Klan to stage a car accident involving local Black leaders, eight Klan members showed up at her offices late at night.
A bespectacled Bass — “the sweetest-looking of little ladies,” Anderson said — pulled a pistol out of her desk.
Bass had never handled a gun before — “and wasn’t quite sure which end to point at the intruders,” she later wrote.
She figured it out, and the group bid 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 in a good cause.”
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, and 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. (Though it shared a name, this Progressive Party was different from the more successful one founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.)
In today’s terms, many of Bass’s beliefs — civil rights, organized labor, redirecting military budgets to social needs, universal health care — might have been labeled Democratic socialism, said Anne Rapp, a historian who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Bass.
But in that era, they were radical — and Bass became the subject of government surveillance that would continue until her death.
“Her F.B.I. file is several reams thick,” said Toni Spears Scott, a great-great-niece.
Bass’s status as “disloyal” prompted the California N.A.A.C.P. to tear up her membership card, and Iota Phi Lambda, a Black sorority, to revoke her honorary membership.
Her international travel was restricted, and C.I.A. agents followed her to conferences overseas.
“When I was growing up, our family really only mentioned her in whispers,” Scott said..
Bass sold The Eagle in 1951 and co-founded Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a Black women’s group.
The next year, she and Hallinan launched their White House bid on a platform of “peace and prosperity.”
Hallinan was best known for his defense of Harry Bridges, a union leader who was convicted of perjury for denying being a Communist — a verdict later overturned by the Supreme Court. In the process, Hallinan was sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court, which is where he was when the 1952 campaign began.
And so Bass campaigned alone, speaking at a Baptist Church in New York and to autoworkers in Detroit. When, during a news conference in Baltimore, a member of her party told a reporter that “we don’t expect to win,” she threw her a glance.
“Please don’t say that,” Bass said. “After all, I am the candidate.”
Bass would not win. But she would make history, and for a brief time her lifelong fight for equality would enter the national spotlight.
Bass retired to what was then a Black resort town southeast of Los Angeles, Lake Elsinore, where she turned her garage into a community reading room and voter registration site.
She is reported to have died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1969.
“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,”
Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.