Kamala Harris and the legacy of Charlotta Bass


The end of last week saw the world's media react to the news that Kamala Harris had been picked as Joe Biden's running mate for the 2020 American presidential election.

It comes after an election trail which has seen Biden keep to his promise of appointing a woman to run alongside him as Vice President.

Kamala Harris was picked ahead of another former 2020 democratic candidate, Elizabeth Warren, as well as other reported hopefuls such as Stacey Abrams and Gretchen Whitmer.

In doing so, she became the first woman to make the election ticket of a major party, as the vice-presidential nominee since Sarah Palin in 2008 with the Republican party, and the first for the Democrats since Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.

Geraldine Ferraro at a Democratic National Convention in San Francisco, 1984.

Notably though, her appointment also marked another landmark: by becoming the vice presidential nominee she has been commended for becoming the first black woman to run as vice president for a major political party. However, a look through history suggests that although disappointingly rare, precedent does exist albeit on a lesser level.

The legacy of Charlotta Bass

It speaks to the many talents of Charlotta Bass that the extent of the achievements in her political career can at times be undersold, largely due to excellence in other fields. It also speaks to the talents of Charlotta Bass that in a list of 'firsts' this would be but one of many others. Charlotta Bass, born Feb 14, 1874, would live her life as educator, newspaper publicist, editor and civil rights activist. It is her strides in the printing press, as editor-in-chief of the California Owl (which she would later rename California Eagle) which are most known, yet despite her work as a civil rights campaigner being heralded, it is often overlooked quite how far it took her.

Charlotta Bass, the civil rights activist

It is important to state that separating her work as an editor from her role in the civil rights movement is difficult when so much of her energy even as an editor was devoted to tackling discrimination. She is believed to be the first black American woman to operate a newspaper in the US and used her position to further the call for civil rights in her own unique way. She was a vocal opponent of red-lining (denying services, typically financial based on race and/or ethnicity) in LA neighbourhoods and used the paper as a vehicle to raise awareness about restrictive covenants and housing, which the United States supreme court found to be unconstitutional in 1948 and unenforceable in a court of law. (Restrictive covenants in 20th century America essentially concerned discriminatory agreements inserted into deeds by community developers and white homeowners during the first half of the 20th century - this was to keep black folks out of neighbourhoods where they were unwanted).

She was similarly vocal in the areas of voting rights, labour rights and police brutality and harassment. Her efforts to right the wrongs she encountered extended beyond the printing line, as she also took part in successful campaigns to end job discrimination at the LA general hospital, the LA rapid transit company, the southern telephone company and the boulder dam project.

Her time at the California Eagle would come to an end in April 1951, as she signed off with a column on the 26th of that month, before selling the newspaper shortly afterwards. It was in her final years though that she would achieve the distinction of becoming the first black vice-presidential candidate for a political party in the US, as she formed one part of the Progressive party's election ticket, alongside Vincent Hallinan in 1952. Four years prior, she had supported the Progressive Party's Henry Wallace in his failed bid for Presidency, meaning that her role in 1952 represented an ascension of sorts.

During her acceptance speech she remarked:

I am stirred by the responsibility that you have put upon me. I am proud that I am the choice of the leaders of my own people and leaders of all those who understand how deeply the fight for peace is one and indivisible with the fight for Negro equality. And I am impelled to accept this call, for it is the call of all my people and call to my people. Frederick Douglass would rejoice, for he fought not only slavery but the oppression of women. Above all, Douglass would counsel us not to falter, to "continue the struggle while a bondsman in his chains remains to weep." For Douglass had that calm resolution which led fast while others waivered, that steadfastness which helped to shape the party of Abraham Lincoln and held it fast to the fight for abolition.

Fittingly, upon reflecting on her life and career in her 1960 autobiography 'forty years' she commented: "it has been a good life that I have had through a very hard one but I know the future will be even better, 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 ..."

It was this very outlook that defined Charlotta Bass' career as a civil rights activist and newspaper publicist and led her to become the first black woman to run as vice president.

Mayowa Ayodele

To learn more about the life of Charlotta Bass





To learn more about America's relationship with restrictive covenants and housing




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