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Charlotta Bass with a copy of the California Eagle.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

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The fearless newspaper publisher who crusaded for fair housing

Charlotta Bass used the power of the pen to fight racist housing laws

In 1944, Anna and Henry Laws built their dream home, a two bedroom house with a red-tiled roof on 92nd Street in the semi-rural neighborhood of Watts. They had purchased the land over a decade before and had scrimped and saved in order to construct the house. In October, when they moved in, “there wasn’t a black face around,” one family member later told the Los Angeles Times.

Only one month later, two local real estate developers, furious that Laws family had moved in, filed suit, pointing to an old restrictive covenant barring people of color from living in the neighborhood. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge sided with the realtors and ordered that the family must move out of their home by December 1. But the Lawses refused to be intimidated and turned to activists and leaders in the community for support: the NAACP, church groups, and Charlotta Bass, the fearless owner of the California Eagle.

During her 40 years as the publisher of one of the premier black newspapers in the West, Bass would advocate tirelessly for the rights of all Angelenos to live wherever they chose. She fought for fair housing in her newspaper, through social activism, and finally, through politics.

Charlotta Amanda Spears was born in Sumter, South Carolina in 1879. After relocating to Rhode Island, she sold subscriptions for a local paper. In 1910, she moved to Los Angeles to improve her health, lured to Southern California by tales of sunshine and more freedom for African Americans. She got a job as a ”girl Friday” to John Neimore, founder of the weekly black newspaper The Owl.

Charlotta Bass, left, in front of the California Eagle’s printing plant at 1607 East 103rd Street in Watts.
Courtesy of Southern California Library

After Neimore’s death in 1912, she bought the paper at auction and changed its name to the California Eagle. She hired an experienced newspaperman named Joseph J. Bass to help her run the Eagle, and soon married him, starting a fruitful professional and personal partnership that would last until his death in 1934.

Bass, tireless and pugnacious, with what historian Donald Bogle calls a “schoolmarm” manner, soon became an important fixture at the Eagle’s tiny headquarters at 4075 South Central Avenue, the heart of the black community in Los Angeles. “Beneath her thick-rimmed eyeglasses and rather sweet country-girl smile, was a serious-minded, highly intelligent crusader,” Bogle wrote.

The newspaper publisher quickly became known as a woman who could get things done, with little fear of the consequences. According to those who knew them, Joseph Bass was the more cautious of the two, while she was often ready to jump into the middle of a fray to support the rights of others.

“Mrs. Bass, one of these days you are going to get me killed,” he would often say wryly.

“Mr. Bass, it will be in a good cause,” she would reply.

It had not taken long for Bass to realize that Los Angeles was not the land of milk and honey, as had been reported by leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Due to restrictive covenants, outrageous interest rates (that were much higher than what white residents paid), and intimidation, black Angelenos were confined to small areas of the sprawling city and often unable to secure bank loans or mortgages. Even if they were able to purchase a home, there was no promise that they would be allowed to stay there.

One infuriating example occurred in 1914, when a woman named Mary Johnson purchased a home in a white neighborhood. According to the authors of The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City, no sooner had she moved in then Johnson was forced out of her home by white neighbors.

Although Bass had only been in LA for four years, she had already developed a reputation as a powerful activist, and Johnson went to her for help. In one night, Bass organized 100 local women to march to Johnson’s home in protest and succeeded in convincing the sheriff’s department to escort Johnson back to her home.

Bass used the power of the pen to combat injustices of all kinds, and to encourage black Angelenos to use what limited influence they had to enact change. In 1929, she helped defeat Harry F. Burke in his run for City Council, by exposing that he was the leader of the White Home Protective Association, one of the numerous organizations dedicated to upholding and renewing racial restrictive covenants.

This photograph of a housing tract in South Los Angeles was published in the California Eagle in 1950.
Courtesy of Southern California Library

During the 1930s, Bass brought the national “Don’t Spend Where You Can’t Work” campaign, which had started in Chicago, to Los Angeles. According to Rodger Streitmatter, author of Raising Her Voice: African-American Women Journalists Who Changed History, Bass fought job discrimination throughout Los Angeles and the Southwest:

When…editorials failed to convince Boulder Dam officials to hire blacks to help construct the facility, Bass joined company officials at the bargaining table. And when both editorials and personal appeals failed to change the Los Angeles Railway’s ban on black employees, Bass mobilized fifteen hundred angry citizens to march against the company. Regardless of the strategy, the outcome eventually was the same: an end to discriminatory hiring.

After her husband died in 1934, Bass became increasingly liberal and defiant, turning her attention to restrictive covenants and the slum-like conditions that people of color faced in Los Angeles as a result of racist laws. On August 15, 1943, she wrote in the California Eagle:

While we emphatically support the demand for increased emergency housing in the Negro districts of Los Angeles, it is certainly obvious that the fundamental housing necessity in Los Angeles is the total destruction of property restrictions. Today it is a fact that Negroes are confined to a ghetto area comprising only five percent of the residential area of the city.

In editorial after editorial, Bass hammered home to her mostly black audience that their participation was needed to change these archaic laws.

“It is staggering to realized that 95 [percent] of this great sprawling city is restricted against occupancy by Negroes...” she wrote. “[Only through] a considered, militant campaign can the destiny of the Negro’s future in Los Angeles be assured. Only through such a campaign can the grasping hands of Southern custom be torn from local housing and shoved back to Dixie.”

Bass also reached out to other minorities, and urged her readers to reach across barriers of ethnicity. “Since the question of restrictive covenants concerns such minorities as Orientals, Mexican-Americans, Indians, the Jewish, Italian and Negro people, our discussion of the Negro people’s struggle against restrictive covenants applies to the struggle of all minority groups, Bass wrote in her autobiography, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper.”

Throughout the 1940s, Bass practiced what she preached, working with Jewish groups, and voicing her support for the Mexican-American men who had been unjustly imprisoned in the Sleepy Lagoon murder case. She brought attention to the problematic slum conditions in the Latino neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, and protested the displacement and internment of the Japanese during World War II, calling thepersecution of the Japanese-American minority [...] one of the disgraceful aspects of the nation’s conduct of the People’s War.”

Bass also was willing to work with whites in power and to go on the front lines herself. In 1943, she became the first African-American to serve on a Los Angeles County Jury. According to Los Angeles Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen, one day in the early ’40s, Bass was informed of mock lynchings and bonfires at Fremont High School on South San Pedro Street. Although she initially went to report on the riot, she ended up talking with a group of angry white students:

. . . Negroes just can’t go to school with white people any more. They can’t mix,” one student told her.

”Oh, I don’t know,” answered the woman who was walking picket lines to protest segregation in the aircraft industry. “I just can’t make myself believe that you would object to my child going to this school or even living next door to you. I believe we would learn to like each other if we ever really became acquainted.”

When police tried to stop their discussion, a white student protested, “We like this woman; she is giving us good advice.

Bass would use the relationships and influence she had worked so hard for to get behind Henry and Anna Laws in the summer of 1944. The Lawses had been blindsided by the lawsuit when it was filed. When they had bought the two lots in 1931, the couple had been assured they would not face any problems when they chose to move there.

“The man who sold my parents the property told them restrictive covenants didn’t mean anything,” their daughter Paulette Laws Fears told the Los Angeles Times decades later. “And they believed him.”

The Laws family waits at the door of a court room for their housing discrimination trial. Left to right: Anton Fears, son-in-law; Pauletta Fears, daughter and wife of Anton; Anna and Henry Laws.
Courtesy of Southern California Library

A Mexican family and black family had quickly followed the Lawses into the neighborhood, and just as quickly moved out after legal proceeding had begun. According to Fears, Mr. and Mrs. Laws stood firm, even when the NAACP—worried the case was unwinnable—said it would give the family $750 dollars if they packed up and left.

“Why should I move?” Henry asked during one court hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I brought this property 13 years ago and I built this house. I bought the furniture to fit the rooms. The only way they will ever get me out of this house is to shoot me with a Gatling gun and throw my dead body on the other lot.”

Bass was in the courtroom for the hearing and was disgusted when the judge sided with the “fascist” agents and ordered the couple to move. The judge had upheld the law— restrict covenants were legal at that time.

But Bass believed in a higher moral law.

“After listening to a plea that would have stirred the sympathetic emotions of Hitler, Judge [Aleen W.] Ashburn, unmoved, ordered Henry and Anna Laws to vacate their home,” she wrote in the California Eagle.

Under the threat of arrest, Henry and Anna turned to Bass and asked if they should give up.

Not surprisingly, Bass said no.

A few days later, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the Laws’ quaint home, where they were met by a sea of picketers and protesters defending the Laws family. The white deputies seemed in no hurry to do their unpleasant task, waiting in line for food being prepared in the kitchen, and even bringing it out to picketers.

But according to the Los Angeles Times, the chaotic community atmosphere eventually turned dark when Henry, Anna and their son and son-in-law, both World War II veterans, were arrested. Later that night, Pauletta was arrested when she came home from work.

An enraged and energized Bass went into overdrive. She spearheaded a fund drive for the family, and encouraged her famous friends, including Paul Robeson and Lena Horne, to contribute.

According Streitmatter, Bass then “organized a picket line around the Laws’ home, directing her readers to, ‘come to the Eagle office. Demonstrate your indignation by signing up for duty on the picket line.’ She also organized a massive demonstration that drew 1,000 protesters. After a week of headlines and demonstrations, the judge released the Laws family from jail. Bass had turned the tide.”

Anna and Henry Laws stayed in their home, in a state of seemingly interminable limbo. Spurred on by their case and countless others, in 1945 Bass organized and chaired the Home Owners Protective Association to fight restrictive covenants. According to Streitmatter, famous residents of Sugar Hill like Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters also consulted with Bass, who urged them to hire a lawyer and fight.

On May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. Four months later, the California State Court issued a reversal on the Laws’ case (and seven other cases) officially allowing Anna and Henry Laws to stay in the home they had built.

“We were happy and jubilant about it,“ their daughter Dolores Tropez told the Los Angeles Times. “We received calls from all the people around the neighborhood who had helped us by raising money and canvasing and picketing. People would call and stop by and said ‘I’m glad your mother and father didn’t give up.’”

Anna lived in the little house on 92nd Street until her death in 1987.

As the decades changed, Bass found herself increasingly redbaited for her progressive ideas and shunned by more moderate voices in the black community, including her competitor Leon Washington Jr. at the Los Angeles Sentinel. There was tension and bad blood between Bass and prominent local leader Loren Miller—the man who had argued the restrictive covenants case before the Supreme Court. Miller had worked for Bass as a young reporter and felt that his boss had been reckless and headstrong.

With the official death of restrictive covenants, Bass turned to new ways to improve housing conditions for black Angelenos. “Since the inception of the Public Housing program in this community, racists and real estate interests have tried to prevent Los Angeles from obtaining needed units, rented on a democratic basis according to need,” she editorialized in 1950.

She also supported rent control, writing that same year;

Millions of families are victims of high rents and low wages. Now if rent control is taken off, the heartless property owners or landlords will make life miserable and children homeless for millions of local and migrant families. What we need is regulation not de-control.

In 1951, money trouble forced Bass to sell her beloved paper to Miller, her old protégé turned nemeses. The California Eagle was published until 1964, shortly after Miller sold it after being appointed a judge.

After the sale, Bass turned increasingly to politics. In 1952, Bass became the first African-American woman to be a candidate in a presidential election, running as vice president for the Progressive Party. Their slogan? “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues.”

Bass stayed socially and politically active well into her nineties. In 1960 she published Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper.

She eventually moved to the small resort town of Lake Elsinore, but even in her peaceful retirement, she turned her garage into a public reading room and voter registration site. She died in 1969, but to this day, her words ring true.

“When a person, an organization, even a newspaper gets the courage and fortitude that it is going to require to get this old world in such condition that it will be a fit and happy abode for all the people, they must first be prepared to have their head cracked, their hopes frustrated, and their financial strength weakened,” she wrote.

Editor’s note: Southern California Library in South Los Angeles holds extensive collections on the history of community resistance in Los Angeles, including the papers of Charlotta Bass and copies of her memoir.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Paul Robeson’s last name was misspelled.

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