New Bedford, MA, 1895: A Controversial Election and Joseph H. Fernandes - Dulce Maria Scott

(Political ad in "The Evening Standard," New Bedford, November 29, 1895)

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.

Back then, and before New Bedford adopted a nonpartisan electoral system, starting with the 1938 election, the law permitted municipal parties to form and adopt their own names, independently from the major national political parties. Yet, notwithstanding the names the local parties adopted, for years, according to historian Zephaniah W. Pease (1918, p. 126), the politics of New Bedford were divided along the line of "pro or anti" Charles S. Ashley, a charismatic and populist figure who for several years, from 1891 to 1936, served as mayor. Ashley was not a contender in the 1895 elections, but I will return to him when I write about subsequent elections in New Bedford. 

Until the election of 1938, the New Bedford City Council was divided into two chambers, the highest chamber with six Aldermen, one from each ward, and the Common Council, with 24 seats, four from each ward. In 1938, the Council was reduced to a single chamber and from 30 to 11 councilors, five elected "at large," in city-wide elections, and one from each of the six wards. Until 1922, municipal elections were held every year, and, from then on, every two years.

(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).

The foreign-born population of New Bedford, according The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Decennial Census, included 3,861 Portuguese in 1895. This number, however, did not include the American-born children of the Portuguese, some of whom, by then, had reached adulthood and were already making their mark in New Bedford's civic life. The Portuguese Americans were concentrated in the Fifth and Sixth Wards of that city, and it was from these wards that the drama of their political incorporation into the City Council and the Massachusetts Legislative Assembly would be played out throughout the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Politics involves engaging in collective action, and the Portuguese-American Political and Naturalization Club -- located on the corner of Potomska and Second Streets -- became the space where the late 19th century Portuguese of New Bedford would converge around citizenship and politics.

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.

Returning to Joseph H. Fernandes and the election campaign of 1895, to the surprise, consternation, and anger of the members of the Portuguese American Political and Naturalization Club, when the lists of nominated candidates were published in The Morning Mercury on November 20, 1895, the name of Joseph Fernandes was not in the Citizens' Party lists.

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).

He did so with the support of the Portuguese-American Political and Naturalization Club, which, assuming the role of a grassroots political organization, began to run the advertisement shown at the top of this article in the New Bedford newspapers. In the course of my research into this city's politics at the turn of the twentieth century, this was the only year in which a club, in addition to the political parties, placed a
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.

Dulce Maria Scott hols a PhD in Sociology from Brown University, USA,  and is a full professor at Anderson University, Indiana, USA.

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