Charlotta Amanda Spears Bass was born in Sumter, South Carolina, on February 14, 1874, to Hiram and Kate Spears. She was the sixth child of eleven. When she was twenty years old, she moved to live with her brother in Providence, Rhode Island, where she worked for the Providence Watchman. Spears worked for the Providence Watchman for about ten years. She moved to California for her health and ended up working at the Eagle. In 1912, a new editor Joseph Bass joined the Eagle. Bass had been one of the founders of the Topeka Plaindealer. He shared his concern with Spears about the injustice and racial discrimination in society. The Eagle developed a large black readership. By 1925, the California Eagle employed a staff of twelve and published twenty pages a week. The Eagle’s circulation of 60,000 made it the largest African-American newspaper on the West Coast.
When the editor John Neimore become ill, he turned the operations of the Eagle over to Spears. After Neimore’s death, the paper’s new owner put Spears in charge. She renamed the newspaper company to the California Eagle due to increasing social and political issues. Her purpose for the California Eagle was to write about the wrongs of society. The newspaper served as a source of both information and inspiration for the black community, which was often ignored or negatively portrayed by the predominant white press. As publisher, Bass was committed to producing a quality periodical. In her weekly column, “On the Sidewalk”, begun in 1927, she drew attention to unjust social and political conditions for all Los Angeles minority communities and campaigned vigorously for reform.
Bass published the California Eagle from 1912 until 1951. Bass and her husband combatted such issues as the derogatory images in D.W. Griffith’s film, Birth of A Nation; Los Angeles’ discriminatory hiring practices; the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; police brutality; and restrictive housing covenants. The Basses powerfully championed the black soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry who were unjustly sentenced in the 1917 Houston race riot. They also covered the case and supported the “Scottsboro boy,” nine young men who were framed and convicted of rape in Scottsboro, Alabama in 1931. In 1934, Joseph Bass died. Charlotta Bass continued to run the California Eagle on her own. In the 1940s, Bass’s newspaper pioneered multiethnic politics, advocating Asian-American and Mexican-American civil rights. Bass retired from the newspaper business in 1951. Her later years were devoted to politics.
During the 1920s, Bass became co-president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey. Bass formed the Home Protective Association to defeat housing covenants in all-white neighborhoods. She helped found the Industrial Business Council, which fought discrimination in employment practices and encouraged black people to go into business. As editor and publisher of the California Eagle, the oldest black newspaper on the West Coast, Charlotta Bass fought against restrictive covenants in housing and segregated schools in Los Angeles. She campaigned to end job discrimination at the Los Angeles General Hospital, the Los Angeles Rapid Transit Company, the Southern Telephone Company, and the Boulder Dam Project.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, she continued to encourage black businesses with the campaign known as “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work”. As a leader of both the NAACP and the UNIA, Bass spanned the divide between integrationist and separatist black politics. She was the director of the Youth Movement of the NAACP. It had 200 members, including some actors and actresses, such as Lena Horne, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beavers.
In the 1940s, the Republican Party chose Bass as western regional director for Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign. Three years later, she became the first African-American grand jury member for the Los Angeles County Court. Also in 1943, Bass led a group of black leaders to the office of the Mayor of Los Angeles, Fletcher Bowron’s office. They demanded an expansion of the Mayor’s Committee on American Unity, more public mass meetings to promote interracial unity, and an end to the discriminatory hiring practices of the privately owned Los Angeles Railway Company. The mayor listened, but agreed to do no more than to expand his committee. Then later in the 1940s, Bass left the Republican Party and joined the Progressive Party because she believed neither of the major parties was committed to civil rights.
Bass served in 1952 as the National Chairman of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, an organization of black women set up to protest racial violence in the South. That year, she was nominated for vice president of the United States by the Progressive Party. She was the running mate of lawyer Vincent Hallinan. Bass became the first African-American woman to run for vice president of the United States. Her platform called for civil rights, women’s rights, an end to the Korean War, and peace with the Soviet Union. Bass’s slogan during the vice presidential campaign was, “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.”
Bass worked on issues that also attracted Luisa Moreno, who was active in Afro-Chicano politics in Los Angeles during the 1930s-1950. No record shows that the two women ever met, but in 1943 both served on the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, a multiracial group that fought for the release of several Chicanos convicted of murder by an all-white jury. Bass d Moreno part of the same “constellation” of struggle. Bass wrote her last column for the California Eagle on April 26, 1951, and sold the paper soon after. 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, through 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 . . . ” During her years of retirement, she maintained a 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. She died in Los Angeles on April 12, 1969 from a cerebral hemorrhage. She is buried alongside her husband in Evergreen Cemetery, East Los Angeles, California.
- February, 14, 1874
- Sumter, South Carolina
- April, 12, 1969
- Los Angeles, California
- Evergreen Cemetery
- Los Angeles, California