The relationship between the U.S. government and the news media has long been a contentious one. That tension is particularly clear when we look back at the lives and careers of women journalists of color who spent decades battling with the federal government for the minds, opinions, and favor of the American people.
Participants in New-York Historical Society’s Teen Leaders program selected and researched pathbreaking publishers and reporters, creating an online interactive now available as part of the Center for Women’s History’s current exhibition Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO. These women devoted their careers to covering events in their communities that the mainstream press ignored, and their calls for economic and political equality attracted scrutiny from the Senate, the Justice Department, and the State Department, among other entities. Their stories spark vital questions about the limits of federal power, the importance of a free press, and what does—and does not—constitute “American” behavior.
Charlotta Bass: “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues”
Journalist, activist, and politician Charlotta Bass (ca. 1874-1969) broke barriers as the first African American woman to own a newspaper. Charlotta Amanda Spear moved from Rhode Island to Los Angeles as a teenager and worked for John James Neimore, founder of a local Black newspaper. Upon Neimore’s death in 1912, she bought the paper and renamed it The California Eagle. The Eagle focused on issues faced by California’s Black community, including discriminatory hiring practices, restrictive housing covenants, and police brutality. Bass, who married journalist Joseph Bass in 1914, served as owner, publisher, and columnist, contributing a weekly editorial called “On the Sidewalk.” She used her column to advocate for civil rights, women’s rights, and immigrants’ rights; to support Black-owned businesses, denounce the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation for its derogatory portrayal of African Americans, and condemn the Ku Klux Klan. By the 1930s, The California Eagle was the largest Black paper on the West Coast.
During World War II, federal officials monitored many Black newspapers for signs of sedition, including the California Eagle. In 1942, the FBI showed up at the Eagle’s headquarters and accused Bass of receiving funds from Japan and Germany. The Post Office, CIA, State Department, and War Department also surveiled Bass during their hunt for “communist traitors” during the postwar period, although no evidence suggests Bass was ever affiliated with the Communist Party. The FBI eventually compiled a 563-page file on Bass, and during the Cold War, the State Department named her a threat to national security and tried to seize her passport.
After 41 years with her newspaper, Bass resigned to focus on politics. She became a founding member of Sojourners for Truth and Justice, a radical organization that addressed the overlap of racism, sexism, and classism in Black women’s lives. In 1952, Bass made history again as the first Black woman to run for vice president of the United States. Running on the Progressive Party ticket, Bass’s candidacy set a precedent for future Black women to run for high office.
Marvel Jackson Cooke: “As I stood there waiting to be bought, I lived through a century of indignity”
A passionate activist and political radical, Marvel Jackson Cooke (1901-2000) was also an innovator in journalism. Born in Minnesota, Marvel Jackson moved to Harlem in 1926, where she worked as an editorial assistant for W.E.B. Du Bois at The Crisis. Founded in 1910, The Crisis was published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as an outlet for Black authors and artists to express their views on politics and civil rights advocacy. Du Bois recognized Cooke’s talent and put her in charge of a column called “In the Magazines,” where she critiqued leading literary publications and interacted with the prominent poets, playwrights, authors, artists, and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1935, The Crisis published “The Bronx Slave Market,” a groundbreaking series co-written by Cooke and civil rights activist Ella Baker. Cooke and Baker went undercover and experienced firsthand the harsh conditions experienced by Black women seeking domestic work in Depression-era New York City. “The Bronx Slave Market” opened the eyes of New York residents and politicians to the economic exploitation of impoverished Black women, and then-Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia responded with investigations and minor reforms. Cooke revisited the series in 1950 as a reporter for the Daily Compass, demonstrating how rising unemployment pushed Black women back into the unregulated and precarious “slave markets.” Cooke’s series concluded with a call for “decent legislative safeguards, employer education, employee training, and, above all, unionization.”
A member of the Communist Party since 1936, Cooke appeared twice before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee on Investigations; she invoked the Fifth Amendment. After the Daily Compass went out of business in 1952, Cooke dedicated her later life to writing for the New World Review and continued her political activism. She served as New York Director of the Council of Arts, Services, and Professions, and National Vice Chairman of the American-Soviet Friendship Committee.
Francisca Flores: “Women must learn to say what they think and feel and be free to state it without apologizing”
Francisca Flores (1913-1996), infected with tuberculosis at age 15, lived in an iron lung at the Vauclain Tuberculosis Sanatorium in San Diego for many years. There, she underwent a political awakening after meeting women who had lived through the Mexican revolution. She was inspired to learn about revolutionary philosophy, and organized a group called “Hermanas de la revolución Mexicana” which encouraged women to talk about politics and activism. Soon after leaving the sanitarium and moving to Los Angeles, Flores became a prominent figure in Chicano/a activism and journalism, and worked for a number of publications including La Luz, Mas Grafica, and Regeneración.
Flores wrote and published Regeneracíon between 1970 and 1975. She was inspired by the brothers Jesús, Enrique, and Ricardo Flores Magón, prominent figures in the Mexican revolution who had published an earlier newspaper also called El Regeneracíon. (The anarchist and anti-war paper had been banned by the Mexican government, and the U.S. jailed Ricardo for sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917.) Flores used the publication to report on news and political actions of interest to the Chicano/a community; to encourage self-expression through opinion pieces, poetry, and art; and to convey her own feminist ideals. For this work, the FBI put Flores under surveillance, designating her “a most dangerous individual . . . who in all probability should be interned in the event of war.”
Evelyn Yoshimura: “We must destroy the stereotypes of Asian women, and Asian people, as a whole, so we can define ourselves, and be free to realize our full and total potential”
Evelyn Yoshimura (b. 1948) grew up in Denver, Colorado, where her family took up residence after their release from a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. Exposed to the ideas and techniques of the Civil Rights movement after moving to Los Angeles as a student at California State University Long Beach, Yoshimura helped mobilize the Asian American community as a editor and contributor to Gidra. This was the first newspaper dedicated to communicating the viewpoints, issues, and goals of Asian Americans, and served as a venue for Asian Americans to share their lived experiences and reflect on the discrimination they faced.
From its very first issue, which contained a quote from Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and a call for “Yellow Power!” Gidra emphasized community self-determination and expressed solidarity with other marginalized groups. As one anonymous contributor put it in May 1969, “Don’t think that it’s a Black problem; it’s a Yellow, Black, Brown, and Red problem . . . I’m asking you to stand up for what you think is right for the Yellow people and our Black and Brown brethren. Let’s forget our differences and work together because united we stand and we shall be heard.” The FBI placed Gidra under surveillance.
Yoshimura’s writings expressed opposition to the war in Vietnam, called out racism, and deconstructed prevalent beliefs about Asian Americans, particularly Asian American women. The January 1971 special women’s issue of Gidra opened with a statement signed by fifteen Asian American women addressing sexual stereotypes of Asian women prevalent in the American military, the exploitation of Asian American women working in the garment industry, and discrimination against women within the Asian American movement.
To learn more about the history of women in journalism, visit Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, on view through October 3, 2021 in our Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, or our online interactive.
Written by Jeanne Gutierrez, Curatorial Scholar, Center for Women’s History