New Bedford, MA, Politics 1895: A Controversial Election and Joseph H. Fernandes
It was November of 1895, and the yearly election season was in full swing in New Bedford, MA, USA. Incumbent Mayor, David Parker, from the Citizens’ Party, and Stephen Brownell, from the Independent Citizens’ Party, were in contention for the highest political office in the city. The municipal election of Tuesday, December 3rd was fast approaching, and grand rallies and parades were being held in all the six wards, the newspapers were abuzz, and the candidates, in grandiose fashion, made the usual campaign promises.
One such promise — made to the Portuguese-American Political and Naturalization Club — was that Joseph Fernandes, who for some time served as president of the Club (Borden, 1899, p. 84), would be slated by the Citizens’ Party for a seat in New Bedford’s Common Council in representation of the Sixth Ward. With the expectation that one of their own would be nominated by the party, the members of the Club met and voted to throw the group’s support in the direction of incumbent Mayor Parker.
(The Standard-Times, New Bedford, MA, April 18, 1948)
Joseph Fernandes, as described by Alanson Borden (1899, pp. 83-84), was born in New Bedford on July 17, 1860, and both of his parents had come to America at a young age from the Western Islands of the Azores. His father became a “whaler, merchant, and hotel owner,” who “was well known and universally respected in New Bedford.” Fernandes, after completing “a good common education” began working in factories in 1871, but by 1887 he had started a successful general provision business. In addition to serving for some time as president of the Portuguese American Political and Naturalization Club, he was also a member of the Monte Pio Society and the Royal Arcanum, as well as chairman of the Landlords’ Protective Association of New Bedford. Later on, he served as a shellfish inspector, and during the New Deal years worked “on the starfish elimination project for the ERA and WPA.” Upon his death in 1948, he was survived by, in addition to his widow, two sons, two daughters, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren (The Standard-Times, April 18, 1948).
In a previous article published in this blog, I identified Antone L. Sylvia as the first Portuguese to be elected to political office in December of 1774 from the Fifth Ward, and serving from 1875 to 1877 (Scott, 2014). Sylvia also played an instrumental role in the creation of other Portuguese community organizations, including Saint John’s the Baptists Church in 1871 and the Monte Pio mutual aid society in 1882. Through an extensive archival search, I was able to confirm that the election of Antone L. Sylvia in 1874 was the exception rather than the rule, and that the Portuguese of New Bedford only began to attain elected office on a regular basis starting with the election of Joseph Fernandes as an Independent in the municipal elections of 1895.
At a meeting on the evening of November 20, called specifically to address such a humiliating affront, some Club members wanted to disavow Mayor Parker and instead support his competitor Brownell. But, who was to blame for such a slap in the face: the incumbent mayor or the party’s nominating committee? Unsure of who to blame or what to do, and unable to reach consensus, the Club members left the two-hour long meeting without taking a vote. Yet, when asked by journalists, Fernandes stated that he would run as an Independent (The Morning Mercury, November 21, 1895).
campaign ad in the newspapers.
Joseph Fernandes won the election beating the candidates sponsored by the two contending political parties, demonstrating, thus, that the voting strength of the Portuguese of the South End of New Bedford could not be ignored. The Independent Citizens’ Party included a Manuel Estacio Costa on its list for the Sixth Ward, but he was not elected. Parker was reelected as Mayor. Joseph Fernandes ran again in 1896, but lost the election. He continued to run for the Common Council intermittently, but only came to hold office again from 1911 to 1915.
The debacle with the 1895 election led to serious divisions within the Portuguese-American Political and Naturalization Club. Perhaps as a result of such the divisions, only in 1902 would another Portuguese candidate, Manuel Andrews, be elected from the Sixth Ward to the Common Council, serving for two years until the end of 1904. Nevertheless, the Portuguese had prevailed with the election of Fernandes in 1895, and they would from then on assume a regular presence in New Bedford politics. Two Portuguese American candidates from the Fifth Ward would be elected in December of 1896, one as Alderman and the other as Common Councilor. The story of the 1896 election will stay for my next article in Comunidades.
Borden, Alanson. 1899. Our county and its people: A Descriptive and Biographical Record of Bristol Country Massachusetts. The Boston History Company, Publishers.
Pease, Zephaniah W. (Ed.). 1918. History of New Bedford (Vol 2). New York, NY: The Lewis Historical Publishing Company.
Scott, Dulce Maria. 2014. “Antone Sylvia: The first Portuguese American elected official in New Bedford.” Comunidades. RTPAçores. Web.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decennial Census. 1895
The Evening Standard. November 29, 1895. New Bedford, MA.
The Morning Mercury. November 20 and 21, 1895. New Bedford, MA
The Standard-Times. April 18, 1948. New Bedford, MA.