Bass, Charlotta Amanda Spears 1874–1969
Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass 1874–1969
Publisher, social activist, political candidate
Charlotta Spears Bass was the editor and publisher of the oldest black newspaper in California in the first half of the 20th century. Bass and her husband were the editors of the California Eagle from 1912 until 1951. They used the newspaper as a platform to address racial discrimination and civil rights issues. Aside from writing about civil rights, Bass was also a social activist. She organized campaigns in Los Angeles and other cities across the country to fight for an end to employment and housing discrimination. Bass was the first African American to serve on a grand jury in Los Angeles and she also ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the U.S. Congress and the Los Angeles City Council. In 1952 Bass made history by becoming the first African-American woman to run for the office of vice president of the United States.
Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was the sixth of eleven children born to Hiram and Kate Spears in Sumter, South Carolina. She was born most likely on February 14, 1874, although some sources have listed her birth date as 1879 or October of 1880. Little is known about her childhood, except that she attended public school. When she was 20 year old, Bass moved to Providence, Rhode Island to live with her oldest brother, Ellis. She took one semester of classes at Pembroke College and worked in the office of the Providence Watchman newspaper.
After ten years of living in Rhode Island, Bass experienced some health problems and moved to California to recuperate. She had planned to stay in California for only two years, but she ended up spending the rest of her life there. Bass arrived in Los Angeles and found a job selling subscriptions at the Eagle newspaper for five dollars a week. In 1912 the editor of the paper, John J. Neimore, was in failing health and so he asked Bass to take over as editor of the paper. When Neimore died later that year, the paper was bought by a second-hand store dealer named Captain G.W. Hawkins. Bass published her first paper on March 15, 1912. At this time the Eagle was California’s oldest black newspaper. A year later Bass bought the newspaper for $50 at a public auction and she changed the name to the California Eagle.
The California Eagle had a tradition of fighting for racial equality and against discrimination and Bass continued this tradition under her leadership. During the early 1900s California had attracted many African-American settlers who were heading west in search of better economic opportunities than were available in the South. The black community in Los Angeles was growing rapidly and African Americans experienced high home ownership rates in this booming city. However, Bass and other African-American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois were not shy to point out that while California offered many opportunities for blacks, there was still a considerable amount of discrimination.
Bass struggled as editor, publisher, and distributor of the paper for a year until she hired Joseph Blackburn Bass to work at the paper, first as a journalist and eventually as editor. Bass was a teacher from Kansas
At a Glance…
Born Charlotta Amanda Spears on February 14, 1874, in Sumter, SC; died on April 12, 1969, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Hiram and Kate Spears; married Joseph Blackburn Bass in 1914 (died 1934). Politics: Progressive Party.
Career: Providence Watchman, RI, office worker, 1894-1904; Eagle, Los Angeles, CA, subscription seller, 1904-12; California Eagle, Los Angeles, CA, editor, 1912-51; social activist, 1912-66; Progressive Party, candidate for U.S. Congress, 1944, candidate for Los Angeles City Council, 1945, candidate for vice president of the United States, 1952.
Memberships: Pan-African Conference, 1919; United Negro Improvement Association; Industrial Council, Los Angeles, founder, 1926; Home Owners Protective Association, Los Angeles, founder, 1945; Women for Wallace, national co-chair, 1948; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Los Angeles, executive board member.
who founded the Topeka Call newspaper, which was later renamed the Topeka Plaindealer. He then moved to Helena, Montana, and founded the Montana Plaindealer before moving to California in 1911. By 1914 Charlotta Spears and Joseph Bass married. The couple never had children and they dedicated their lives to the newspaper and their social activism.
Bass had used the newspaper as a weapon in the fight for equality since becoming an editor in 1912. “By 1914, the California Eagle had won the reputation of being a people’s paper, fighting on all fronts for the rights of the Negro people and other minorities to enjoy complete civil liberties,” Bass wrote in her 1960 autobiography called Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper. However, Bass’ activism reached a new level after the release of D.W. Griffiths film Birth of a Nation in 1915. The movie was based on Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman and it portrayed African Americans in a very negative light. Bass formed a campaign to prohibit the production of the film in Los Angeles. She succeeded in preventing certain scenes from being filmed in the city, but she lost a court battle to stop the film altogether. Part of the reason why Bass lost her campaign was that both black and white workers wanted to work for the film because Griffith was paying very high wages.
Bass’ willingness to battle the California film industry gained her national recognition as a social activist. Bass traveled to Texas, Kansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New York to speak out against racial discrimination. She was particularly concerned with discriminatory employment practices. In 1917 she fought the hiring practices of the Los Angeles fire department. Although African-American men were allowed to take the civil service exam, only white men were actually hired. Bass used the editorial column of her paper to raise this issue with the city government and the black community. According to Rodger Streitmatter in the Significance of the Media in American History, Bass wrote in the California Eagle that “the city of Los Angeles does not ask the color of a man’s skin when it presents its tax bill.” After a three-month campaign, Bass’ efforts paid off and the city hired its first black fireman.
Bass’ next campaign was against the Los Angeles county board of supervisors for refusing to hire African Americans to work in the county hospital. The hospital reluctantly agreed to hire black nurses’ aides only if Bass would interview and select the applicants. Bass agreed to the stipulation and screened applicants for a year before the county was convinced that the black workers were competent and Bass’ services were no longer needed.
In 1926 Bass organized the Industrial Council of Los Angeles to fight job discrimination and she was elected the first president. In the 1930s Bass introduced the “Don’t Spend Where You Can’t Work” campaign to Californians. The campaign had begun in Chicago in the 1920s and it encouraged African Americans to boycott businesses that would not hire black workers. Bass used this campaign to fight large corporations. For example, she managed to convince 100 African Americans to cancel their telephone service because the Southern California Telephone Company did not hire black workers. The company gave in to the economic pressure and changed its hiring practices.
Bass was often threatened with physical harm in response to her social activism. For example, in the 1920s Bass directly challenged the Ku Klux Klan. She often published articles exposing the hateful practices of the white-supremacist group and in return she received threatening phone calls and letters. In 1925 Bass published a letter signed by G.W. Price, the Klan leader in California, that outlined a plot to frame prominent black leaders for drunk driving in order to discredit them. In response Price sued the Basses for libel and they had to fight the Ku Klux Klan in an all-white court. The Basses were successful, but the Klan responded with threats of violence. One evening eight hooded men confronted Bass at the newspaper office when she was there alone. Bass fearlessly pulled a gun out of her desk drawer and showed it to the hooded men and the men quickly fled.
Bass encountered many situations throughout her career when her personal safety was jeopardized. Her husband was a strong supporter of her activism, but he often worried about their safety. Bass felt that the causes for which they were fighting were so important that they were worth the risk. The Basses worked together as a team, with Joseph anchoring the newspaper business while Charlotta was the public spokesperson. By 1925 the California Eagle was the largest African-American newspaper on the West Coast, employing 12 workers and publishing 20 pages a week.
In the early 1930s Joseph Bass became ill and he was unable to manage the daily business of the newspaper. He died in 1934 leaving Charlotta Bass alone to continue the business. Bass incorporated the newspaper to increase capital and she let a board of directors make final decisions about the business. Bass continued her social activism after her husband’s death. Most notably, she pressured the Los Angeles Railway Company to hire the first black conductor in 1943.
In the 1940s Bass took on a new social issue fighting racial discrimination in housing. Several states had implemented housing covenants to restrict African Americans from residing in particular neighborhoods. In Los Angeles there was a popular campaign called “Keep Neighborhoods White” that used covenants to prevent African Americans from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods. In 1945 Bass was elected president of the Home Owners Protective Association, which was formed to fight the housing covenants.
Bass organized a campaign to protect a group of affluent African Americans from being forced to leave their neighborhood by white residents. The African-American homeowners were doctors, lawyers, and entertainers, including actresses Hattie McDaniel, Louise Beavers, and Ethel Waters. The African Americans took their case to court and won the right to stay in their homes. Bass also fought cases for residents in middle- and lower-class neighborhoods as well. She used the newspaper to keep the issue of housing covenants in the public. In 1948 the United States Supreme Court finally ruled that racially restricted covenants were unconstitutional.
In the 1940s Bass also turned her social activism into a political career. Bass had been a lifelong Republican, but she became disillusioned with the party’s lack of commitment to racial equality, so she joined the Progressive Party. “As a member of the elephant party, I could not see the light of hope shining in the distance, until one day the news flashed across the nation that a new party was born,” Bass explained at a Progressive Party convention in 1952 as quoted in Gerda Lerner’s book Black Women in White America. Bass ran as the Progressive Party candidate for the U.S. Congress, 14th district, in 1944 and for the Los Angeles City Council in 1945. She lost both elections but her sheer presence as a candidate brought attention to the fight for civil rights. In 1948 Bass was a co-chairperson for Women for Wallace, a group supporting the Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Henry A. Wallace.
In 1951 Bass sold the California Eagle to Loren Miller, an attorney and former reporter for the paper. In the paper’s last edition with Bass as editor, Bass wrote, “after more than 40 years in which I have tried to serve my people and my country, as a good neighbor, as an editor, and as a fighter for Negro liberation, I feel that I must now take time to regain my health, to learn more about what is happening in the world … and to decide how I can be most useful in the years ahead.” Bass moved to New York City to work at the national headquarters for the Progressive Party.
In 1952 Bass was selected to be the vice presidential candidate for the Progressive Party. She ran with Vincent Hallinan, an Irish lawyer, on a platform that supported job security, housing rights, civil rights, and an end to the Korean War. She adopted the slogan “Let my people go!” for her campaign. The Progressive Party received less than one percent of the vote in the national election, but Bass made history as the first African-American woman to run for vice president of the United States.
Bass retired after the 1952 campaign. She moved to Elsinore, California, to write her memoirs, which were published in 1960. Bass’ outspoken political views made her a target of racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, as well as a target of the federal government. As Bass became a national public figure, she was scrutinized by the American government for anti-American activities. She was interrogated by the FBI for suspected ties to communism and she was followed by CIA agents whenever she traveled out of the country. Throughout her career Bass did not allow threats to her personal safety or her civil liberties dissuade her from speaking her mind and fighting for racial equality.
Bass suffered from a stroke in 1966 and was moved to a Los Angeles nursing home where FBI agents continued to watch her. At the age of 91 Bass was still considered “potentially dangerous” by the government. On April 12, 1969, Bass died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Los Angeles at the age of 95. The California Eagle was last published in July of 1964, but the legacy of the newspaper and its editors lived on through the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
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—Janet P. Stamatel
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