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Overlooked No More: Before Kamala Harris, There Was Charlotta Bass

Historians in the News
tags: civil rights, African American history, journalism, womens history, Charlotta Bass



This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

When Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president last month, Mikki Wosencroft cried. “It gave me goose bumps to see how far we’ve come,” she said. She was thinking of her great-great-great-aunt, Charlotta Bass.

More than 50 years earlier, in 1952, Bass was the first Black woman to run for vice president, on the Progressive Party ticket.

Taking the stage to accept her nomination before some 2,000 delegates in an auditorium on Chicago’s West Side, Bass — who would receive endorsements from civil rights luminaries like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois — declared: “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 was a long-shot bid alongside Vincent Hallinan, a San Francisco lawyer, that would garner just 140,000 votes. (The Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon would win in a landslide against Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman.) But that wasn’t the point. As Bass’s campaign slogan stated, “Win or Lose, We Win by Raising the Issues.”

When Bass spoke that day, the Voting Rights Act would not exist for another decade. It would be another two years before school segregation would be ruled unconstitutional.

Bass raised these and many other issues over a long career as editor and publisher of the West Coast’s oldest Black newspaper, The California Eagle, and later as a political candidate.

And yet she is hardly a household name. Few copies of her 1960 autobiography, “Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper,” are in circulation. The Eagle’s offices, in what was once the heart of the Black community in Los Angeles, on Central Avenue, is now an appliance store. And Bass’s grave, at the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, does not bear her name. (It names her husband, Joseph Blackburn Bass, with whom she shares a plot.)

Still, Bass led a remarkable life as a journalist and activist that, in many ways, helped lay the foundation for a figure like Harris, the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be nominated on a major-party ticket.

“We tend to be so fixated on winners or losers. Winning wasn’t always the point for Charlotta Bass,” said Martha S. Jones, a historian and the author of the forthcoming “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.” “She was trying to shape the political agenda more broadly.”

Read entire article at New York Times

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