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"I Promise I Will Do My Best": The Integrity of Charlotta Bass

Nicholas Beyelia, Librarian, History and Genealogy Department,
Charlotta Bass, Security Pacific National Collection
Charlotta Bass Security, [undated]. Pacific National Bank Collection

Charlotta Bass, a name well known in Los Angeles history circles, has surfaced recently on a national front thanks in part to the ascension of Senator Kamala Harris to the position of Vice President of the United States. Paving the way for Harris, Charlotta Bass was the first woman of color to assume the V.P. slot for a political party. When Bass appeared on the Progressive Party’s 1952 ticket, it was a momentous occasion that, for all intents and purposes, was summarily forgotten by the national press until Harris’ victory. But Charlotta Bass’ importance was acknowledged by Angelenos long before her name showed up on the 1952 ballot. In L.A., Charlotta Bass has long been recognized as a woman of integrity and was a voice of reason in our city at a time when reason and civility could not always be found. The rest of the nation finally recognizing her greatness wasn’t an anomaly, it was an inevitability. As they say, better late than never.

Campaign literature for the Progressive Party highlighting Charlotta Bass
 Campaign literature for the Progressive Party highlighting Charlotta Bass
(Top) Campaign literature for the Progressive Party highlighting Charlotta Bass, 1952; Cornell University Library Manuscript Collection. (Bottom) Newspaper ad advertising a Progressive Party rally in Culver City

As owner and editor of what was arguably the most prominent African American newspaper in Los Angeles, Charlotta Bass helped to shape our civic history and imbued Los Angeles with a moral center usually when it needed it the most. Bass used her newspaper, The California Eagle, to work towards rectifying inequities throughout the city and advocate for disenfranchised communities throughout Los Angeles. Regardless of the ethnic or racial boundaries (both stated and unstated), Bass was known throughout the city for her unfailing character and moral integrity. The genesis of Charlotta’s integrity, however, predates any political campaign, and our city first experienced it the day she made a promise to a dying man. This chance, life-altering event was never recorded by any press outlet, nor was it talked about in City Hall but it would serve as the crucible that would ultimately forge a community leader. As Charlotta recalled, because of this promise she “matured overnight” and was suddenly thrust into the role of being a voice for the community and a conscience for our city.

Charlotta Spears High School photo ca. 1900
Charlotta Spears High School photo, [ca.1900]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Charlotta Bass was born Charlotta Amanda Spears to Hiram and Kate Spears but the actual date is very muddy. PBS lists her birthdate as 1874 on their website while other sources have indicated that it was anywhere from 1870 to 1890, but the 1880 Federal Census indicates it was 1879. Of course, it should be noted that Charlotta was inclined to shave a few years off here and there, as was her prerogative and this probably accounts for some of the uncertainty. There is also some confusion regarding where she was born because the 1880 Census states it was South Carolina but later Census records state it was Rhode Island. Some dogged researchers have uncovered the main points of her life but the fact is that Charlotta never really disclosed much information about her early years. What we do know is that she lived with family members in Rhode Island around the turn of the century and attended Pembroke College. While there, she got a job selling ads and subscriptions for the African American newspaper, The Providence Watchman. Interestingly enough, her autobiography foregoes any east coast life and she begins her narrative the day she moved to the City of Angels: “It was on September 10, 1910, when this writer came to Los Angeles for a two-year health-recuperation stay.” She explained in her autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper, that two years would eventually “stretch into forty” but, before that would happen, she needed a job and her search brought her to the front door of a building on Central Avenue.

Charlotta around the time she arrived in Los Angeles
Charlotta around the time she arrived in Los Angeles. Charlotta Bass - California Eagle Photograph Collection, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

By the time Charlotta arrived in Los Angeles, a man named John James Neimore was already a fixture in the community. Neimore had established a newspaper called The Owl in 1879, ostensibly to provide newly arrived African Americans with job and housing information in the Golden State. The Owl eventually morphed into The Eagle and, as Bass explained, the paper took on a more significant role within the community: “Events hitherto not foreseen posed a vivid realization to Editor Neimore of The California Eagle that his responsibility was more than providing homes and jobs for his people. His paper must wage a fierce battle against racial discrimination in the new environment, and must organize a movement to battle for and secure the civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution...Mr. Neimore, at this time, declared boldly that henceforth The Eagle would stand as a watchtower, pointing the way for freedom and progress for his people, the Negroes of Los Angeles and of the State of California. He declared war on those who hampered making peace in our own nation, and among the races, colors, and religions of the world.” The Eagle was in the midst of this crusade the day Charlotta Amanda Spears crossed its threshold looking for a job.

John Neimore founder of the Eagle/Owl
John Neimore, Founder of The Owl/The Eagle, [ca.1900]. Charlotta Bass - California Eagle Photograph Collection, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

The only newspaper experience or reference that I could offer the scrutinizing Eagle editor was that of office girl and solicitor on The Providence Watchman some years before” Charlotta recalled. Despite her limited experience, Neimore hired the young woman. It would be a fortuitous decision. In Charlotta, he seemed to recognize the ambition and drive to promote social justice that had led him to found the paper in the first place. Through Neimore, Charlotta saw the possibilities that a place like Los Angeles offered people of color:

“John Neimore knew that a better life was possible for his people. He knew there were some cities and some states in the Union where Negroes were allowed to exercise the right of suffrage; where, by use of the ballot they could correct some of these evils. One such city was Los Angeles, Like a veritable pillar of fire leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land, John Neimore set himself the task of leading his people to this Land of Promise to Los Angeles, the City of the Angels.”

Neimore, who had been in increasingly ill health during this period, began to rely on Charlotta to carry a larger workload. By 1912, Neimore’s health was failing and death was imminent. Charlotta was called to Crocker Street Hospital where Neimore made a plea: “I am dying...but I don't want The Eagle to die. You are the one in whom I have confidence. Will you promise to keep it alive?”Most people would wince at the imposition that a request like this would place on them and Charlotta was no exception. The request gave her pause. As she later recalled, “I stood there, looking down on a dying man, trying desperately to compose my feelings and thoughts, and to weigh my words. How could I refuse? Yet, how could I promise?” Without necessarily recognizing it at the time, this would be the moment that would define Charlotta’s future and ultimately change the moral climate of Los Angeles. After a beat, she looked at him and responded, "I promise I will do my best."

Charlotta (left) with California Eagle employees ca. 1930
Charlotta (left) with California Eagle employees, [ca.1930]. Charlotta Bass - California Eagle Photograph Collection, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

Keeping the paper running wasn’t as easy as it should have been nor did Charlotta fully understand what that would entail. Initially, she attempted to rouse Neimore’s daughter, Bessie into assuming the role of editor but the young Miss Neimore’s heart just wasn’t in it. Charlotta also learned that John Neimore didn’t own the paper outright and, instead, was “tied up by an ironclad mortgage to a famous local architect.” She wrote that when she finally met the unnamed architect, it was what contemporary readers would describe as a #metoo moment:

“Well," said the man, sizing me up. and down. ''You are the girl Mr. Neimore spoke of, I presume?" Without saying so, I presumed that I was…He stood gazing at me with what I considered a lascivious look. "lf you must have a newspaper," he said finally, "I will give you this paper and money enough to operate it. And since you are such a nice little girl, in return I want you for my sweetheart. I will set you up in a nice little flat, where you can have anything you want and where you will not be bothered." As I listened, I grew angrier by the minute. I was stunned; nothing like this had ever happened to me before.”

Charlotta’s response to the architect’s proposal was to call him a “dirty dog” and chase the man out of his own building so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he decided to sell everything at auction.

Charlotta with Friends ca. 1922

(Left) Charlotta with Friends, [ca.1922]. (Right) Charlotta with friends at Knotts Berry Farm, [ca.1947]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Charlotta wrote that “with my limited finances, I had been afraid to bid.” She explained that some people came to gawk and some people made small, half-hearted bids but the whole thing was a farce because there wasn’t much interest in buying the paper. While she looked on nervously, a local businessman approached her and asked: "Do you want to continue to try to make this paper go?” That man, George Washington Hawkins, was the owner of a profitable second-hand store and member of the Colored Business Men’s League of Los Angeles. The League was created to help spur business in the African American Community and had helped foster commercial development throughout L.A. County. “Captain Hawkins must have observed an anxious, disturbed look on my face, for he continued "If I buy it for you, do you think you can earn enough to pay me?" Charlotta promised that she would repay every cent and G.W. Hawkins bought The California Eagle for $50. She recalled that “The sole transaction was very unbusinesslike. Captain Hawkins purchased the paper and handed it over to the editor [Charlotta]. The entire transaction was done orally. There were no legal papers signed, no red tape involved...Almost overnight this newcomer to a new frontier became owner, editor, and publisher of a defunct newspaper, as well as owner of a shop and printing plant of odds and ends in the way of equipment, with financial assets amounting to $10.00 in cash and not more than $150.00 in overdue bills.”

Charlotta speaking to an unidentified man

Charlotta speaking to an unidentified man, [ca.1961]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Charlotta spent the next few months living off soup, crackers, and milk while working hard and ignoring the naysayers. Community leaders visited the Eagle offices in an effort to dissuade Charlotta from continuing the paper. These men typically offered something along the lines of ‘Mr. Neimore had killed himself trying to make a go of the paper so why would a woman think she could succeed?’ A competing newspaper, The New Age Dispatch, had also eclipsed the California Eagle in popularity, largely because it incorporated society pages and more fluffy ‘human interest’ stories. Once during this “salad days” period, Charlotta’s hunger got the better of her and she walked to the cafe around the corner. She ordered the only thing she could afford, a bowl of soup. Charlotta ate the soup and buried her face in a newspaper when she overheard “two charming socialites” gossiping and Charlotta was the topic du jour. "Nobody seems to know her, and they say she will not be able to go it alone." Charlotta listened intently as the young women surmised that the Eagle’s focus on politics made it dreary, “The Eagle at one time was the only Negro newspaper in Los Angeles and was the pride of the Negro people. But now The New Age is in first place, mainly because of its full coverage of the social news.” Charlotta explained that their conversation “marked the starting point” in her editorial career. Perhaps it was the frivolity of the women that stirred something in Charlotta or maybe it was the fact that people were openly doubting her abilities but at that moment she made a commitment regarding the content of the paper:

“But, I thought to myself, aren't there many more important issues in the community than who had a party at the Waldorf and Golden West Hotels? Or who were among the guests invited to sip tea with Mrs. Robert Owens on a certain date? Yes, l decided, there were. There was, by this time, a definite trend in Los Angeles to prescribe certain districts in which Negroes could live. Negroes were denied swimming pool privileges. They were refused cafe service, discriminated against in employment, and often mistreated by the police. There were many reforms, corrections and corruptions to be exposed. It was incumbent upon a newspaper such as The California Eagle to deal with these problems. The California Eagle would print social news to please the people who wanted it, but it would also discuss the important issues of the day for those more patriotically inclined.”

Charlotta Bass assists the Red Cross, Los Angeles, ca. 1931
Charlotta Bass assists the Red Cross, Los Angeles, [ca.1931-1940]. Charlotta Bass - California Eagle Photograph Collection, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

Charlotta was aware of the power of the press and did not take that responsibility lightly. Over time, she would make some concessions regarding content but she refused to undermine the basic foundation of the paper by turning it into something completely frivolous. Her vision and determination would draw others into the fray, notably, an experienced newspaperman named Joseph Bass who seemed to have drifted into the offices of The California Eagle in the nick of time. Bass shared Charlotta’s vision for the paper and she hired him as an editor, "When Joseph B. Bass took over the reins of editorship of The California Eagle, he, too, took up the fight against discrimination..." Charlotta’s work life and personal life overlapped and she married Bass in 1914. Together, the two would steer the paper into a crusade fighting social injustice in Los Angeles. The Bass’ did not have children so, in many respects, The California Eagle was their child and they would instill the values they held within the words of their newspaper.

Charlotta’s husband, Joseph Blackburn Bass

(Left) Charlotta’s husband, Joseph Blackburn Bass, [ca.1927]. Security Pacific National Bank Collection. (Right) Bass around the time he arrived in Los Angeles. Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection University of California, Los Angeles

Among the local causes The Eagle took a stand over the next few decades were segregated schooling, housing discrimination, and job discrimination at Los Angeles County General Hospital & the Los Angeles Rapid Transit Company. The Bass’ helped fight to prevent the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s incendiary film, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and persuaded the City Council to support them. The Bass’ helped to push a national campaign, "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" in the Los Angeles area. The movement advocated hiring African Americans throughout the city, supported black businesses, and undermined racist business practices. Joseph Bass’ death in 1934, only amplified Charlotta’s voice and political activity. In the 1940s Charlotta would make a bid for the L.A. City Council and become the first African American to serve on a Grand Jury in Los Angeles.

Charlotta Bass and Ben Margolis at a publication party
Charlotta Bass and Ben Margolis at a publication party for her book, Forty Years: Memoirs From the Pages of a Newspaper, [Apr. 24, 1960], Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles. Forty Years has been out of print since its initial publication and has become difficult, if not impossible, to get a hold of a copy.
Charlotta Bass and a group of businessmen outside the California Eagle offices
Charlotta Bass and a group of businessmen outside the California Eagle offices, [ca 1935]. Charlotta Bass - California Eagle Photograph Collection, Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research

In 1951, the year before she was placed on the Progressive Party ticket, Charlotta Bass finally sold the California Eagle. Despite the fact that the paper would fold in 1964, Charlotta had, in fact, kept her word to Neimore to keep the paper alive. Over the decades, Charlotta frequently thought of that promise she made all those years ago:

“I asked myself why I had promised Mr. Neimore to keep the Eagle going. In all the years since then, I have realized that my reason was very simple: l have always believed in the Constitution of the United States and in the Bill of Rights and all of the Amendments; I have always believed that this great charter of human rights was conceived and written by men who advocated freedom and liberty and equality for all Americans, even for those who were once slaves. They sought liberty for alI. It was this belief and the knowledge, learned from Neimore, that these rights must be defended, yes, and extended, that induced me to assume the responsibility of the editorship of The California Eagle.”

The time she spent in Los Angeles as the editor of the California Eagle brought out a courage, determination, spirit, and fearlessness in Charlotta Bass that our city may not have been privy to had she not made a promise to do her best. That deathbed pledge and her willingness to see it through over forty years really said all we needed to know about Charlotta’s character and integrity; more importantly, it changed the moral fabric of L.A. by giving us a person capable of doing the right thing when the right thing was often seen as social heresy. In individuals like Charlotta Bass, we see the best that Los Angeles has to offer the world and we will continue to celebrate the imprint they make.

Charlotta Bass, seated at the editor’s desk of the California Eagle

Charlotta Bass, seated at the editor’s desk of the California Eagle, [1952]. Shades of L.A. Photo Collection

 

 

 

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