DJ name: Cha Cha Slide
History was made when Joe Biden picked Senator Kamala Harris as his Vice President — making her the first Indian-American AND the first Black woman to be nominated for second-in-command on a major party’s ticket. But Kamala (who definitely listens to Taylor Swift and Doja Cat), is actually not the first Black woman to run for Vice President. That title instead belongs to Charlotta Bass, who ran alongside Vincent Hallinan on the Progressive Party ticket back in 1952. Charlotta ran on a platform of anti-racism, fair housing and equal access to health care — all things that were considered a bit radical back in the 1950s but aren’t quite seen that way anymore.
But she was hardly just a vice presidential contender. Charlotta wore many hats, and she asks that you throw on your thinking cap, stick in your headphones and press play on her tunes:
Charlotta Amanda Spears was born in Sumter, South Carolina, on Valentine’s Day in 1874, the sixth in an eleven-child lineup. She worked her way through public schools before enrolling in Pembroke State College for just a single semester. Seeking a change of pace, Charlotta hit the road and moved in with her brother in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1894. She took a job selling ads for the Black-owned newspaper Providence Watchman, where she worked for 10 years. This was the start of her love story with local journalism.
In 1910, she once again hit the road and moved to Los Angeles, California, where she re-entered the news biz. She sold subscriptions to The Owl, another Black-owned newspaper, which was founded in 1879 and headed up by John J. Neimore. Journalist John knew L.A. needed more news sources that appealed to the community of African-Americans who arrived out West after leaving the South. The paper not only reported on local news but also listed job announcements and housing opportunities. As John J. grew older and got sick, he placed more responsibility on Charlotta. Upon his death, she became the paper’s editor. With no owner, the newspaper went to auction and Charlotta became both the owner and the editor for a tidy sum of $50. Under her ownership, she changed the paper’s name to The California Eagle. Way cooler. But the paper didn’t need help being cool because it was now the first newspaper to be owned and operated by a Black woman. And determined to finish her college education, Charlotta also busied herself with classes at Columbia University and the University of California.
With her eagle eye on the big issues plaguing the U.S., Charlotta gave the paper a makeover. She expanded its coverage, and made sure to provide deep coverage on issues that affected Black Americans such as herself. In 1912, she hired a young fella named Joseph Blackburn Bass as an editor. He was a journalist from Kansas who founded The Topeka Plaindealer. And — breaking news! — she married him, too. Turns out you can find love bonding over Oxford commas and the nuances of AP style.
A journalism power couple, Charlotta and Joseph made sure they put out information many other white-run newspapers were likely omitting — topics like police brutality, restrictive housing and the KKK. They also covered the subject of women’s suffrage which was way before Charlotta, herself, could even vote as a Black woman (Voting Rights Act of 1965, we’re looking at you). Their hard work paid off — The California Eagle was profitable and had a circulation of nearly 60,000, making it the largest Black-owned paper on the West Coast, best coast. There is strength in numbers…of words on a page. She also wasn’t afraid to publish controversial content like pieces that opposed the celebration of the KKK in the film The Birth of a Nation or speak out against hospitals that didn’t hire Black nurses. This sometimes led to life-threatening situations. She often received menacing phone calls, and one time she found herself surrounded by eight men in white Klan-looking robes. But after showing them that she was armed, the group scattered.
In 1927, Charlotta began writing a weekly column for the paper called “On the Sidewalk,” which she used to shine a light on unjust social and political conditions for minorities in Los Angeles. She and Joseph also backed the Black soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth infantry, who they said were unjustly sentenced after the race riots in Houston in 1917. The California Eagle didn’t sleep on any story, nor did the FBI sleep on The California Eagle. The paper’s stories were seen as rebellious by the government organization, so they placed Charlotta and her publication under surveillance.
Joseph and Charlotta continued to stay at the helm of the paper, but Joseph’s sudden death in 1934 caused Charlotta to shift her focus to Civil Rights activism while still maintaining control of the paper. She joined a variety of Civil Rights organizations: the NAACP, the Urban League and the Civil Rights Congress. She also served as Chair(wo)man of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, which was an organization of Black women who spoke out against Jim Crow and U.S. policies that violated their inalienable rights. The organization lasted just over a year and pointed out the systemic oppression of Black Americans, especially women, in the United States.
Bass’ continued outspokenness against discrimination kept her in the FBI’s spotlight and she soon found herself before the California Legislature’s Joint Fact-Finding Committee on un-American Activities because advocating daily for equality for all was so “unAmerican.” Sure. Charlotta cha cha slid out of the journalism world in 1951 and took two hops, two hops into politics. She politically identified as Republican; however, she voted for President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, which was the first time she voted for the Democratic Party. Throughout the presidential race though, The California Eagle promoted his opponent, Al Landon. She slid left into the Democratic Party after she attended a Republican Party Convention and stood in a segregated room. She left unsure if there was a place for her support anymore in a political party that didn’t treat her equally.
When the Progressive Fiesta emerged in 1948 as a third party, Charlotta was there with chips and salsa (jk like it wasn’t a real fiesta ya know?). The Progressive Party’s platform promoted social justice, economic equality and peace (love and happiness). Bass was a key player in getting the Progressive Party on the ballot in California. Then came 1952, a presidential election year. Dwight D. Eisenhower ran with mate Richard Nixon for the Republican Party against Democrat Adlai Stevenson and his running mate Estes Kefauver, and Progressive Vincent Hallinan with his running mate for Madame Vice President *drum roll* Charlotta Bass (Hey! We know her!). On the campaign trail she shared:
I stand before you with great pride. 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 is a great honor to be chosen as a pioneer. And a great responsibility. But I am strengthened by thousands on thousands of pioneers who stand by my side and look over my shoulder—those who have led the fight for freedom—those who led the fight for women’s rights—those who have been in the front line fighting for peace and justice and equality everywhere. How they must rejoice in this great understanding which here joins the cause of peace and freedom. These pioneers, the living and the dead, men and women, black and white, give me strength and a new sense of dedication.
Her slogan during the campaign was “Win or Lose, we win by raising the issues.” Charlotta and Vincent only earned about 140,000 votes. Dwight D. Eisenhower won the election and became the 42nd president. Though Charlotta did not get to claim an office in the White House as her own, she was the first Black woman to ever campaign for Vice President — and did so after facing trial for being “un-American” in the eyes of the FBI. For a country that didn’t seem to love her energy and dedication to raising the issues, Charlotta moved forward with strength. Because she wanted to reach a “Higher Ground.”
Charlotta eventually retired and moved to Lake Elsinore, California. Though retired, she remained active in the fight for civil rights and added another hat to her hat collection: low-key librarian and voter activist. She turned her garage into a community reading room and into a voter registration location for African Americans. She even continued to protest. When she turned 91 in 1967, the FBI still had her on their radar. Like were they fearful of a woman who was fearless? Two years later, she passed away and was buried next to her husband, Joseph, in Los Angeles.
Throughout her life, Charlotta picked up the torches left by the pioneers who made progress in paving the path to equality before her. Her story, similar to those of our many historic shufflers, shows that this relay for change consists of many footsteps by many people from all walks of life.