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From Brown to the ballot: Stages of Freedom remembers first Black female vice presidential nominee Charlotta Bass

Bass ran for VP of Progressive Party in 1952 alongside Vincent Hallinan

As Senator Kamala Harris took the stage at the Democratic National Convention Aug. 19 to formally accept the nomination for vice president, supporters took to Twitter to celebrate a long-overdue milestone. Harris, running on a historic ticket alongside former Vice President Joe Biden for a shot at unseating President Donald Trump, would be the first Black woman nominated for vice president by a major party.

But one oft-overlooked footnote in Harris’ narrative is Charlotta Bass who, nearly 70 years ago in 1952, accepted the nomination for vice president of the Progressive Party alongside presidential hopeful Vincent Hallinan. 

At one time, Bass had called College Hill home. 

Nearly 60 years before her historic nomination for vice president, in 1894, Bass moved north from her home state of South Carolina to College Hill to attend Hope High School, and later, Pembroke College.  

Ray Rickman, director of Stages of Freedom in Providence, is working to preserve Bass’s legacy.

Bass once said in an interview that she was born in Little Compton, Rhode Island, though Rickman speculates that she likely stretched the truth to distance herself from her actual birthplace of South Carolina, which didn’t keep records for Black people until 1913. 

According to Rickman, Bass lived with her older brother in College Hill on the plot of land where CVS on Thayer Street currently sits: in convenient proximity to her alma mater of Hope High School.

In South Carolina, education for Black children was only offered through the eighth grade, Rickman said, prompting Bass’s move to Rhode Island where her brother was already settled in. “They thought that's all Black folks needed for education,” Rickman said about Southern education at the time. “And that's all they would provide.”

And though Bass’s later stint at Pembroke was brief, it was not uncommon for women at the school to only attend for one or two years. In fact, Rickman said, about a quarter of Pembroke students at the time never graduated. 

Though University historians know virtually nothing about Bass’s time on College Hill, Rickman speculates that “she was miserable,” given Pembroke’s racially segregated housing and dining facilities and unequal treatment of Black students. 

“She wasn't much for discrimination,” he said. 

After college, Bass went on to work for a local Black newspaper, the Providence Watchman, where she helped to organize the paper’s finances and tripled their ad sales.

She worked for the Watchman for ten years, but her asthma suffered in Rhode Island’s harsh climate, Rickman said. In search of warmer weather, Bass headed West. 

“She was trying to decide where to go: Arizona or California,” Rickman said. “She thought California was more exciting.” 

In California, Bass found herself at the California Owl, another Black newspaper: first as a staff member and then as its owner, after she bought the paper at bankruptcy in 1912 for $50 and renamed it to the California Eagle

At the time, “it probably wasn't half of what the BDH is,” Rickman said with a laugh. “And then she turns it into a real newspaper. It's the biggest Black newspaper west of the Mississippi. At some points, it’s the second largest Black newspaper in America.”

Bass, who leaned far to the left politically, used her paper as a platform for her politics: pushing back against the influence of big banks and fighting for minimum wage in California. 

As she continued to leverage her platform to amplify her political opinions, she became connected to major Black political figures like W.E.B. Du Bois. Her reputation in the political sphere was a natural link to her eventual partnership with the Progressive Party, a third party challenger to the Democratic Party’s near monopoly on the Black vote at the time. 

Bass and her running mate unsuccessfully attempted to recapture the Black vote and appeal to Black citizens’ dissatisfaction with an apathetic Democratic Party — which often did not fully align with the promises of its presidential candidates. 

Still, Rickman said, Bass set a precedent worth preserving. Stages of Freedom, which is working in Rhode Island to uplift Black heroes and historical figures in the small state “believes strongly that Black history gets lost.”

In doing the group’s work, Rickman hopes to offer a positive foil to the stereotyped media representations of Black people before the 1960s, who were often painted only as criminals. 

“She's the first Black woman in America to own a newspaper. And then she turns it into something,”Rickman said. “That's big stuff, it really is, and people should know it.”



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