Born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1863, Joseph Blackburn Bass made his mark in the newspaper business in Kansas, Montana, and California. After teaching school during the 1890s, Bass took over ownership of the Topeka Call in 1896, where he had worked for two years as a reporter for owner William Pope. Bass had to sell the newspaper in 1898, which became the Topeka Plaindealer, although he remained on the staff until 1905, when he moved to Helena, Montana, and established his own paper, The Montana Plaindealer.
Bass wrote, edited, and published the Plaindealer at 17 South Main Street in Helena, aided by an assistant, Joseph Tucker, from March 1906 to September 1911. An activist and promoter of civic organizations, Bass embraced progressive political goals and urged Helena’s sizable African American population—more than 450 in 1910—to be entrepreneurial and engage in cultural uplift.
In 1906, Bass helped organize the St. James Literary Society, based in the St. James AME Zion Church. Three years later, Bass spearheaded the Afro-American Protective League, an ambitious statewide organization that meant to defend African Americans in Montana from racism. The group lasted only a few months, but Bass had established himself as a community leader. Two years earlier, in 1907, he helped organize a Helena chapter of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, which included more than a dozen businesses in town, and in 1908 Bass created the Afro-American Building Association, a self-help group of African American real estate owners in Helena.
After financial difficulties forced Bass to close the Plaindealer in 1911, he headed first to San Francisco and by 1912 to Los Angeles, where Carlotta Spear hired him as a writer for her fledgling California Eagle. Bass became editor of the Eagle in 1913, married Spear in 1914, shared his wife’s activist political interests, and edited the paper until his death in 1934.