Recognizing that diversity is our strength, Mary Santos Barros (1923-2018) was a strong and tireless advocate for equal education for all, Cape Verdean advancement, and many other causes in New Bedford. She demonstrated how others can build an inclusive community that treats all people with respect and dignity.
Mary’s concern for her own children and the children of others informed her active advocacy through Parent Teacher Associations (PTA)—coalitions of parents and teachers that advocate for public education and serve as a resource for community families. During the mid-20th century, many women used PTAs to organize on their children’s behalf. Mary often served as president of these PTAs. She also served on the executive committee of the Committee of Concerned Parents for New Bedford schools and was instrumental in the building and dedication of the Alfred J. Gomes Elementary School in 1977, named for a local Cape Verdean attorney and leader.
Using her experiences working in the PTA as a launching pad, Mary became more politically involved. Mary recognized that in order to accomplish certain objectives, one has to be active on many levels. Through a grassroots campaign, going door-to-door, to meet and listen to her constituents, she was elected to the New Bedford City Council in 1989 and served two terms as Ward 4 councilor. Upon her election she remarked that she would be “in the City Council for all the people of Ward 4.” Mary, like Rosalind Poll Brooker before her, brought her knowledge of the community to the Council to fight for changes from within City Hall. Her time in political office was marked by her support for affordable housing, drug rehabilitation programs, anti-poverty efforts, and continued educational advocacy through legislation.
She also brought her advocacy to the state level as a social worker for the Massachusetts Department of Social Services and as a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education from 1975-1979. She was recognized “for her distinguished service through the establishment of increased opportunities for the youth and exemplary parent participation.” She was also elected as a city and then a state Committeewoman to the Democratic Party Conventions.
Mary was a strong advocate for all people, particularly people of color, and especially Cape Verdeans. Her own Cape Verdean heritage was important to her and she did much to help Cape Verdeans in New Bedford and the land of her parents. When natural disasters assaulted Cape Verde, Mary, using her organizing skills, worked with others to lobby on state and federal levels to raise funds and send needed supplies to the islands. A believer in political empowerment as well, Mary helped many Cape Verdean immigrants become American citizens and served as a voice for immigrant parents, often taking them to school committee meetings and interpreting for them.
Her legacy is a powerful example that served as a role-model for her own children and all community members, as she spread the knowledge that they can empower themselves and strengthen the community.
Thank you to the family of Mary Santos Barros for their contributions to Mary’s biography and providing photographs. Their stories showcased Mary’s special qualities and tireless efforts on behalf of her family and community.