Power  /  Antecedent

Kamala Harris Isn’t the First Black Woman to Run for VP. Meet Charlotta Bass.

In 1952, the newspaper publisher and activist joined a long-shot bid by the Progressive Party, paving the way for politicians like Harris.

More than half a century before Sen. Kamala D. Harris was named Joe Biden’s running mate Tuesday, another Black woman from California took the stage at a Chicago convention to make a decisive declaration.

“This is a historic moment in American political life,” the journalist and political activist Charlotta Bass told the crowd. “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.”

Indeed, while Harris will be the first Black woman and the first Asian American to appear on a major-party ticket, she is not the first Black woman to run for vice president. That title belongs to Bass, who joined a long-shot Progressive Party ticket in 1952, more than a decade before the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

Martha Jones, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, said Bass is one of several key figures who paved the way for Harris and many other contenders for Biden’s vice-presidential pick. As a Los Angeles civic leader and the publisher of a major Black newspaper, Bass chronicled and commented on politics before entering the fray herself.

“I don’t think you can understand how we got here in 2020 if you don’t appreciate the way in which Black women have built this moment,” Jones told The Washington Post. “Kamala Harris doesn’t just drop from the sky. She’s a political figure whose career is very much linked to a history."

Bass’s chapter in that narrative starts in 1910, when she moved from her native South Carolina to Los Angeles and started working at the California Eagle, according to Denise Lynn, a historian at the University of Southern Indiana. Bass and her husband became joint publishers of the influential Black weekly paper, though she took over fully following his death in 1934.

In the Eagle’s pages, she criticized the Ku Klux Klan, denounced the Hollywood production of “The Birth of a Nation,” and endorsed female candidates in local races. Women had already won the vote in California by 1911, but Bass kept thousands of readers informed on the national women’s suffrage movement.

Bass’s commentary created change, too. Her pieces on employment discrimination resulted in the first Black hires at a major hospital and several big telephone companies, she said in her biography. She later got involved with the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, as well as local and state politics.