“I believe in a world of good. The battle is not won, nor the struggle past. But I know the future will be even better.”– Charlotta Spears Bass
Charlotta Spears Bass’s Story
Although there is significant discrepancy as to the year and location of her birth — with dates ranging from 1874 to some accounts suggesting she was born in Sumter, South Carolina — according to Bass’s personal papers, archived at the Southern California Library, Charlotta Amanda Spears was born in Little Compton, Rhode Island, in 1888. [Read here for additional research on when and where Bass was born.] Little is known about her early life, but as stated in her memoir, Bass lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where she worked selling ads and subscriptions for a Black newspaper, the Providence Watchman. Because she was suffering from health issues, Bass’s doctor recommended she move to a warmer climate, and in 1906 she moved to Los Angeles, California. Similar to other urban centers across the nation, Los Angeles became a place where African Americans moved to seek better working conditions and escape racial segregation and violence, a mass movement which became known as the Great Migration.
In 1912, Bass was selling subscriptions for The Eagle, one of the oldest newspapers in California. Founded by J.J. Neimore in 1879, the newspaper focused on stories relevant to the Black community, including job opportunities and housing options for African Americans arriving in Los Angeles. On his deathbed, Neimore told Bass, “I am dying. But I don’t want The Eagle to die. You are the one in whom I have confidence. Will you promise to keep it alive?” Two months later, Bass bought the newspaper at auction for $50. In May 1912, Bass became the owner, publisher, and editor, and renamed the paper The California Eagle, making her one of the first African American women to own a newspaper. In 1913, she hired veteran reporter Joseph Bass of The Topeka Plaindealer as editor for The California Eagle, and a year later they got married. Under the leadership of Charlotta and Joseph Bass, the newspaper grew significantly both within California and nationally, becoming a source of information and a voice for the Black community. Following the traditions of muckraking journalism, The California Eagle brought attention to the social injustices people of color faced.
A leader in the early civil rights movement, Bass used her platform to inform the public and advocate for African American rights and reform, despite harassment and death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. In 1930, she became a part of the Black labor movement, helping to launch the “Don’t Spend Where You Can’t Work” national campaign, and bringing it to Los Angeles. Originating in Chicago, the campaign encouraged African Americans to boycott businesses that would not hire them. She was successful in lobbying for employment opportunities for African Americans at numerous California businesses, including the telephone company, General Hospital, and the Los Angeles Railway. After her husband died in 1934, Bass continued to run the paper until 1951, and also became more involved in electoral politics.
Bass was a member of the Republican Party for 30 years, but frustrated with its lack of progress for African American rights, she helped co-found a third party, the Progressive Party. In 1950, Bass ran for Congress in the 14th Congressional District of Los Angeles on the Progressive Party ticket, a race she lost. In 1952, she ran with presidential candidate Vincent Hallinan on the Progressive Party ticket, becoming the first African American woman to run for Vice President of the United States. Even though they received less than 1 percent of the vote, Bass was proud that her campaign put racial issues on the political map. She stated, “Win or lose — we win by raising the issues.”
After stepping out of the political arena, Bass continued working as a community activist. In her seventies, she transformed her garage into a community reading room and voter registration site. In 1960, she self-published her memoir, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper. In 1969, at age 81, Bass died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Featured in the Film
Susan D. Anderson
Susan D. Anderson is the history curator and program manager at the California African American Museum (CAAM). Prior to joining CAAM, she worked as a director of public programs at the California Historical Society. Anderson was also interim Chief Curator at the African American Museum & Library in Oakland, and former Curator for the UCLA Library Special Collections. Anderson is the founder and principal of Memory House, where she provided curatorial and history consulting services to clients such as the City of Berkeley, National Park Service, Golden Gate Recreation Area, Richmond Museum of History, and Mazisi Kunene Museum in Durban, South Africa.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and staff writer for The New York Times Magazine. She is the creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a historical analysis of how slavery has shaped American history. Prior to joining The New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones worked as an investigative reporter at ProPublica, where she wrote extensively about school and housing segregation. In 2016, she co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, an organization dedicated to training people of color in the field of investigative journalism.
IN HISTORY - 1827
Founding of Freedom’s Journal and emergence of the Black press
Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was born in Rhode Island
IN HISTORY 1895
Ida B. Wells published The Red Record
Bass's early life
Bass headed West
Joseph Bass joined The California Eagle
IN HISTORY - 1915
"Birth of a Nation" premiered
The Eagle led a campaign for the employment of Black nurses at General Hospital
Bass grew The California Eagle and started a weekly column “On the Sidewalk”
Bass formed the Industrial Council and served as its president
Bass became a community leader and political activist
IN HISTORY - 1940s
WWII and the African American Press
IN HISTORY - 1945
Ebony magazine was founded
IN HISTORY - 1951
Jet Magazine launched
IN HISTORY - 1950s
The Red Scare
Bass sold The California Eagle
Bass retired from politics but continued her activism
IN HISTORY - 1964
The Civil Rights Act
Women in journalism today