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Meet Charlotta Spears Bass – The First Black Woman to Run for Vice President of the U.S.

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Charlotta Spears Bass (1874-1969), a crusading newspaper editor and politician, was one of the first Black women to own and operate a newspaper in the United States. She followed in the tradition of ‘muckraking’ or reform-minded journalism, publishing the California Eagle in Los Angeles from 1912 until 1951, at a time when newsrooms were male-dominated and few white journalists focused on issues of importance to African Americans. The California Eagle, one of the first African American newspapers in California, with the largest circulation of any Black paper on the West Coast, addressed social and political issues such as racial violence, and discrimination in schools, housing, and the job market. Bass confronted the Ku Klux Klan, and later in her career, she entered electoral politics and was the first African American woman to run for Vice President of the United States in 1952, on the Progressive Party ticket.

Interviewees: historian Susan​ ​D.​ ​Anderson, history curator at the California African American Museum; Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for The New York Times Magazine, creator of the 1619 Project, and co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting.

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TRANSCRIPT

'For the first time in the history of our nation, a political party has nominated a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.'. Charlotta Bass was so far ahead of her time running for vice presidency of this nation.

And she used her newspaper to fight for rights across the spectrum.

1912, Los Angeles, California.

24-year-old Charlotta Bass worked at the California Eagle, one of the first African American newspapers in the state.

She found her way to that newspaper selling subscriptions.

The California Eagle was founded by J.J.

Neimore in 1879 to support the movement for equality among African Americans.

In 1912, Neimore called Bass to his deathbed.

It was Charlotta that he asked to carry the paper on after his passing and she made a deathbed promise to him that she would.

'Almost overnight, I became owner, editor and publisher.

Who had ever heard of a woman running a newspaper?

It was the talk of the town.'. Although there's some debate about the year and location, Bass was born Charlotta Amanda Spears in 1888 in Little Compton, Rhode Island.

She attended desegregated public schools in Providence, and worked selling ads and subscriptions for a Black newspaper, the Providence Watchman.

In the white, mainstream newspapers, African Americans were mentioned almost exclusively in stories about crime. That was it.

So the Black press provides coverage impossible to find in the mainstream press.

In 1906, Bass moved to Los Angeles - a city booming with the promise of jobs.

'Negroes were in search of dignity and civil rights.

It was the dawn of a new life in an atmosphere of freedom.'. Everybody came to California starting in the late 19th century. And African Americans were part of those migrations.

On the one hand, that period was defined by violence against Black people, the rise of white mobs, lynching and all kinds of terror.

At the same time, this was actually a kind of Golden Age for African Americans.

They were building institutions, publishing newspapers, developing culture and flourishing in many ways.

When Bass became one of the first African American women to own a newspaper in 1912, her first order of business was keeping the doors open.

It was an extraordinary thing for anyone to own a newspaper, because of the kind of resources that it took to run the presses and to pay the bills and to just get the newspaper distributed.

Bass hired a veteran reporter as her second-in-command.

Joseph Bass was an experienced newspaper man.

He'd been an editor on an African American newspaper in Kansas before he migrated to California.

Charlotta kept the title of managing editor, and Joseph Bass took care of internal workings of the paper.

They married in 1914. Under their joint leadership, the California Eagle grew from a four-page tabloid to a twenty-page weekly, with the largest circulation of any African American paper on the West Coast.

Every issue that people were facing, whether it was in the schools, in the job market, in housing, not being served in a restaurant - all were reflected in the pages of the California Eagle.

'The paper dedicated itself to the task of waging bloodless, but fearless war against segregation and discrimination wherever they raised their ugly heads.'. The role the Black press has always had to play is to take Black people from being invisible and to try to push the country through our reporting to be more democratic. My name is Nikole Hannah-Jones, and I'm a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine.

I got my first letter to the editor published when I was in middle school.

I read a column I thought was racist and I wrote a letter to the newspaper complaining. And I never forgot how empowering that felt to actually see my name in print.

The only reason I ever wanted to be a journalist was to write about racial inequality. I've done that with housing segregation, with school segregation, and the 1619 Project, which I created to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being sold into the United States.

Every single story in the magazine starts with America today.

And shows how these things about American life that you think are unrelated to slavery actually are.

It was an effort to show that virtually nothing has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery in the American story.

We were founded not as a democracy, but as a slave-ocracy. I earned the Pulitzer Prize for my opening essay, which is on how Black Americans are the perfecters of democracy.

Charlotta Bass took a lot of risks in the work that she did.

Southern California was one of the main fields where the Klan was recruiting.

And she called them out on a regular basis in the pages of the newspaper.

And she suffered a campaign of harassment and threats.

One night in 1925, Bass was working alone when eight hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at the paper's offices.

She pulled a pistol out of the drawer of her desk and pointed at them.

'I had never handled a gun before, and wasn't quite sure which end to point at the intruders, but they evidently thought I might know how to shoot, and all eight beat a hasty retreat.'. Her husband told her, 'You're going to get me killed one day, Mrs. Bass.' And she always told him, 'Well, Mr. Bass, it will be in a good cause.'. After Joseph Bass died in 1934, Charlotta Bass ran the newspaper by herself for another two decades and became more involved in electoral politics.

She joined committees, she marched on picket lines, she lectured, she ran for city council, she ran for county office.

In the 1930s and 40s, Bass helped win a series of victories for equal rights, including ending employment discrimination at various L.A. companies.

Black people and particularly Black women are still vastly underrepresented in mainstream newsrooms. And that is why I helped co-found the Ida B.

Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, to do away with that one excuse that we hear all the time, which is, 'We'd love to hire more Black investigative reporters, we just can't find any who are qualified.' We've trained hundreds of journalists in the skills of investigative reporting.

If we are not presenting our own communities then other people will shape the way that our stories get told, what doesn't get told and how the larger world sees us.

After being a member of the Republican party for 30 years, Bass was frustrated by its lack of progress on civil rights.

In 1948, she became one of the founders of a left-wing third party dedicated to ending segregation and protesting president Truman's Cold War policies. Bass ran for Congress in 1950 on the Progressive Party ticket. She lost, but didn't stop there.

In 1952, she actually ran for the office of the vice presidency of the United States with Vincent Hallinan on the Progressive Party ticket.

There wasn't a chance in hell that they were going to win, much less get a lot of votes, but she took every opportunity she could to have her voice heard and to bring the kind of social justice that she thought was needed.

'It is with great pride that I come before the American people at this moment.

For the first time in the history of our nation, a political party has nominated a Negro woman for the second highest office in the land.'. Bass was labeled a radical.

The federal government investigated her as a potential communist.

The post office tried to revoke her postage permit for the California Eagle.

She sold the paper in 1951, and it continued publication until 1964.

'I am very confident that within my lifetime, I will see first class citizenship achieved for all my people, true democracy for all Americans.'. She's really been erased from national memory.

In her seventies, Bass transformed the garage of her home into a community reading room and voter registration site. Living long enough to witness the legislative victories of the Civil Rights Movement, Bass died in 1969.

She was 81.

What most inspires me about Charlotta Bass is her fearlessness. She had such a sense of obligation, not just to our own people, but to justice.

I think she certainly helped create a path for someone like myself to exist.

'I believe in a world of good. The battle is not won nor the struggle passed.

But I know the future will be even better.'

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