Before Vice President Harris, there was Charlotta Bass

February 15, 2021

Our main website image for the week of Feb. 15. 2021 featured Charlotta Spears Bass, the first Black woman to run for vice president in 1952, alongside current Vice President Kamala Harris.

About Charlotta Spears Bass

As a longtime editor of the California Eagle newspaper, journalist Charlotta Spears Bass dedicated her life to ending discrimination in housing and employment, gender inequality, police brutality, and racial stereotyping in the media, among other efforts.

In 1952, more than a decade before the passing of the Voting Rights Act, Bass would campaign as the first Black woman vice presidential candidate alongside presidential nominee Vincent Hallinan with the slogan, “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.”

These issues, according to her “Overlooked” obituary from The New York Times, included universal health care, redirecting military budgets to care for social needs, and civil rights — antiracist views for which Bass endured, until her death, government surveillance, intimidation, and travel restrictions.

Charlotta Spears Bass

As the Eagle editor, she played a major role in bringing the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign to Los Angeles — which asked readers to boycott stores that refused to hire Black employees — and her advocacy helped open the door for Black employment with major employers such as Los Angeles General Hospital and the Southern Telephone Company.

In Michigan, the economic boycott had organizers within the Housewives League of Detroit, a group for which the Bentley Historical Library has archival correspondence.

You can read more about Bass's life and work in The Missing Peace: Charlotta Bass and the Vision of the Black Left in the Early Cold War Years, from Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. Wald (full text available online), or stream a short video about her from the PBS American Masters series UNLADYLIKE2020.

Her 1960 autobiography is also in our archives.

Making history, again 

With her swearing in in January 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris evoked Bass and other barrier-breaking political leaders such as Shirley Chisholm and Fannie Lou Hamer when she became the first female, first Black woman, and first woman of South Asian descent in the office.

Though her portfolio hasn’t been publicly defined yet, Harris, a graduate of Howard University, is expected to pay interest to climate change, global health and democracy, racial justice, and other human rights issues, as well as an attention to criminal justice reform issues that may face scrutiny based on her time as attorney general of California.

Charlotta Spears Bass and Kamala Harris (foreground).

At her acceptance speech on Nov. 7, 2020, Harris reflected on the historical milestone of the election, and acknowledged the organizers who’ve played a role for years in empowering communities and getting out the vote.

“I’m thinking about [my mother, who immigrated to the U.S. at 19] and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, white, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight.

“Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.”

Recommended reading: Black presses

You can explore source material from more than fifty Black newspapers from the 19th century in the anthology, The Black Press, 1827-1890: The Quest for National Identity (1971), available as full text online.

“In the white, mainstream newspapers, African Americans were mentioned almost exclusively in stories about crime. That was it. The Black press provides coverage impossible to find in the mainstream press.” — Historian Susan D. Anderson

See also our list of full-text historical newspaper sources

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Please use Ask a Librarian.

 Looking for some new releases? You might be interested in Vanguard by Martha S. Jones and White Tears/Brown Scars: How White Feminism Betrays Women of Color by Ruby Hamad.

About our website images 

This month, we’re reflecting on the significance of contemporary Black leaders in the United States alongside the work of the activists who came before them, and their fight for equitable representation and justice.

Other images this month:

by Emily Buckler

Vice President Kamala Harris.


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