Bill do Carmo was New Bedford’s indispensable civil rights man

“We are not second-class citizens and we will not entertain the idea of living in second-class housing.”

– William Carmo in a Feb. 1, 1971, letter to The Standard-Times

Changes in the relations between the races in New Bedford over the last half century have been monumental, and Bill do Carmo, who died Saturday at the age of 94, was at the center of most of them.

William “Billy” Carmo grew up a member of a large family in the Cape Verdean neighborhood of the South End. But it was at his grandparents’ farm in the Cape Verdean enclave of South Dartmouth where he learned to dream.

Carmo would often tell folks about looking up on a summer’s day while working on that farm and seeing the planes coming in for a landing at nearby New Bedford Airport. He would dream of becoming a pilot, he said. 

Carmo, through bitter personal experience during the Korean War, later learned that the America he was fighting for in the early 1950s didn’t think Blacks should be pilots. So first the Navy, and then the Air Force, refused to train him as one. 

Bill and Bobbie do Carmo with their F-86 waiting for their next mission over North Korea in 1951. Credit: Courtesy of the Do Carmo family

It didn’t matter. When he was out of the service and a civilian again, Carmo (who later in his adult life reclaimed his grandparents’ original Cape Verdean name of “do Carmo”) went off and got his pilot’s license himself. That was the way he was. He didn’t let others tell him what he could and could not do. Bill do Carmo defined himself by himself.

Bill do Carmo was a self-made Black man at a time when the deck was stacked against him.

Back from the service, by 1969 the 39-year-old Carmo was running a construction business and during the consciousness-raising years of the 1960s had begun to get involved with activism and politics. He became an inveterate writer of letters to the editor of the old Standard-Times at a time when folks paid attention to those missives. 

Some 50 years ago, Carmo wasn’t going to accept the traditional wisdom of the New Bedford powers-that-be that he and other Cape Verdean-Americans should keep their radical ideas about civil rights and equity to themselves.

“He was an inspirational man,” said James Lopes, a local attorney, college professor, administrator and leader in the New Bedford Cape Verdean community. “It’s pretty amazing what he accomplished in his lifetime.”

In the late 1960s, it was the era of the Great Society, and there were a whole lot of federal government programs aimed at eradicating poverty. Bill Carmo began advocating that the city more aggressively apply for and implement them.  

In September 1967, he was appointed to head up the Operations Management program of one of those initiatives, Onboard Inc. Carmo was a building contractor at the time, and his job was to “train 20 chronically unemployed people in the heavy maintenance industry.”

The preeminent grass-roots minority organization of the day in New Bedford at this time was the United Front. By March 1968, Carmo had gotten himself elected its president and appointed to its 10-member negotiating committee with the city’s Human Relations Commission and Mayor Edward Harrington.

In September of that year, there was a story in The Standard-Times outlining the United Front’s philosophy — they would reject violence but embrace the attitude of “We shall overcome.” The group issued a 14-point statement, and Point 6 was all the young Bill Carmo. “We shall no longer envy and curse the rich. Instead we shall seek their aid.”  

The following month, Carmo was expanding his portfolio further. He had been appointed the director of the federally funded, city-run program, Operation Mainstream, another manpower training program.

Carmo also kept up his letters to the editor, which would become a hallmark over his long and varied career of activism. Early on, he would weigh in with erudition, almost like he knew that when Black folks spoke up, they would need to more than prove their intellectual mettle in order to break through the stereotypes of the day.

In a Sept. 5, 1968, letter to The Standard, Carmo wrote, “People, ‘white people,’ self-appointed superior homo sapiens, have conditioned black people for more than 300 years to appear inferior, think inferior, and feel inferior.”

Carmo got in on the ground floor of the efforts to build humane housing in New Bedford where the old abandoned, decrepit structures of lower Kempton Street of the West End existed in the 1960s. Urban renewal it was called at the time.

By late 1968, Carmo was part of a United Front group that was set to be awarded a major urban renewal contract. It was said to be for a $13.7 million project on 5½ acres in the West End, off Kempton Street and the surrounding area. The Standard-Times article on Dec. 19 of that year described it as a federal project designed to provide badly needed housing and to give the Black community a hand in the development.

Bill do Carmo portrait in 1970. Credit: Courtesy of Spinner Publications

Former Mayor John Bullard, fresh out of graduate school in those days and working for WHALE on revitalizing the city’s classic historical structures, got involved with Carmo early.

When the federal money for rebuilding West End housing came through, they worked on Bedford Towers and Bedford Townhouses together.

“He took an interest in me,” said Bullard, who wanted to help but was young and unfamiliar with the minority community. “I was always grateful to him for his helping to steer me,” he said.

Bullard was not alone. Former Standard-Times publisher James Ottaway also worked with Carmo at this time, offering editorial support for the initiatives of Carmo and the United Front to build new housing.

Ottaway organized a New Bedford chapter of the Urban Coalition and asked Carmo to help with minority viewpoints on the need for better housing and schools and more jobs in New Bedford.

Carmo’s stature continued to grow and in December 1968 he was elected the president of the NAACP New Bedford. Under his supervision, the organization built its own headquarters on Cedar Street.

It didn’t take long before Carmo was criticizing the all white-run city government’s administration of the federal programs meant to address minority poverty.

In a Jan. 23, 1969, Standard article, he accused the overseers (the city) of the Concentrated Employment Program that oversaw two separate Operation Mainstream programs of redundancy and poor administration. He said it was “wasting the abilities of its staff.”

It didn’t take long for the City Council to hit back.

On Jan. 28, a councilor accused him of a conflict of interest because he owned a piece of land that allegedly might be developed for low-income housing. It wasn’t, Carmo pointed out — it was a singular plot where he had planned to build a house.

Bill Carmo was about to take the fight for civil rights into overdrive.

The next month, he and Donald Gomes, who had succeeded him as the president of the United Front, accused Third District Court judges of having “a double standard” when it came to poor people’s cases. They pointed out a discrepancy in bail between a 17-year-old accused of stealing a car and another man charged with manslaughter, driving under the influence and driving to endanger.

Bail for the alleged car-stealing thief was $400, and the man charged with manslaughter was $500, just $100 more.

It’s striking how much the issues of the 1960s are the same issues today, and how prescient Carmo was about them.

In a May 9, 1969, article Carmo was among a group of Black city leaders who talked about whites fearing Blacks, including criminals, who were allegedly receiving special treatment. He ascribed the attitude to a “lack of understanding.”

Carmo was also prescient about other things. 

In 1969, he warned against the plans to build a new high school on low land off Parker Street. The construction of that high school, as we all know today, has had an array of problems related to its low elevation since that time, not to mention contamination on the site.

The fight to build affordable housing in the late 1960s and early 1970s was no easier than it is now.

Bill do Carmo, circa 1970. Credit: Courtesy of Spinner Publications

By May 1969, Carmo was accusing the City Council of disregarding the will of the people by refusing to take advantage of state legislation that promoted multi-family housing. If the council had approved, a state board would have been able to override local zoning ordinances and allow more multi-family units.

How similar does that sound to what’s going on now with Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s attempts to enforce the state’s new law overriding local zoning in MBTA communities?

In August, 1969, The Standard-Times reported that the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority had hired Carmo to be the director of what was now to be a $14.2 million urban renewal project to construct multi-family housing in the West End.

The units at Bedford Towers and Bedford Townhouses are monuments to the projects Carmo led that are still standing. The United Front separately built the apartments named after itself, as well as the King’s Village West and East apartments. Today, United Front has been rebuilt as Temple Landing in a safer design that Carmo would have supported.

In fact, the building of 596 units of affordable housing that replaced the 544 units demolished in the West End during this era (some of it in the aftermath of the 1970 riots) was an astonishingly large concentrated housing construction boom for its day.

Carmo, back in that era, did not limit his activism to housing. 

In the fall of 1969, he was part of an effort to bring the New England NAACP to the city at a conference that raised the issue of bias and abuse on the New Bedford police force. That issue exploded the very next year in the wake of the West End riots, centered on the very same neighborhoods where Carmo and others were trying to build housing.

Attorney General Robert Quinn eventually conducted an inquiry in the wake of the riots and what was felt was one of the reasons for their motivation: police brutality. The inquiry, however, was only concluded after Carmo publicly chided Quinn for keeping the results of the report under wraps. Quinn eventually came forward. 

“The current investigation leads my Civil Rights and Liberties Division to conclude that a distinct pattern of excessive force and abusive treatment is being directed upon citizens in the Black and Spanish communities by certain members of the New Bedford Police Department,” the attorney general wrote.

Still another issue Carmo got involved in seems to echo the current insensitivity of the local university to its nearby largely low-income city. 

He was active in an effort criticizing bias against minorities at the old Southeastern Massachusett University, predecessor to UMass Dartmouth. He wrote an open letter to Gov. Frank Sargent on May 4, 1970, objecting to what he described as racist attitudes among both the administration and trustees.

The breadth of work that Bill do Carmo did was singular, serving on charities as diverse as United Front, the Airport Commission, the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA.

Former New Bedford City Councilor Viola Pina said do Carmo also did a lot of things behind the scenes that no one knew about. “He was a phenomenal man; we’re going to miss him,” she said.

“He’s one of the most unselfish persons I’ve ever met,” said Lee Charlton, who also was a major force when he himself served as president of the NAACP.

“He was a very generous person,” Charlton said of Carmo, showing me a figurine of an African warrior that do Carmo gave him as a gift one day.

Retired New Bedford NAACP president Lee Charlton points to a miniature statue in his home of a Black warrior given to him by Bill do Carmo. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Do Carmo was not just a success in the public sphere. He built a thriving private sector business.

By 1972, he was already winning some large projects for his construction company, and he had obtained his real estate license. In that year, his company, Carmo Construction, was overseeing the construction of a 110-unit, $1.8 million housing development, Hyannis House Apartments on Cape Cod.

After 1974, Carmo had resigned as president of the NAACP and began to concentrate more of his efforts on the construction and real estate businesses. But even in the private sector, Carmo was fighting the same civil rights battles.

In 1974, on behalf of the Minority Contractors of Southeastern Mass., he became embroiled in a dispute with the business manager of the local Plumbers and Steamfitters Union. 

The union had objected to the federal government’s decision to negotiate a contract for the construction of the new $2.6 million federal building in New Bedford instead of putting it to an open bid. The negotiated process was designed to give minority and other disenfranchised contractors a chance to win contracts. 

Though the contract was only advertised to Boston companies, Carmo rebutted the union’s call for an open bid, saying that minority contractors hoped to gain many of the subcontracts, and the union has a bad track record of hiring minorities.

By the time he was in his 70s, now using his grandparents’ name, Bill do Carmo was still an active force. He served as the project manager, overseeing construction of all three New Bedford middle schools built in the aughts — the Roosevelt, Normandin and Keith. In his later years, he had been so successful that many said he was a millionaire.

The portrait of Bill do Carmo in the Art Room at the New Bedford Free Public Library. To its right is a sculpture of him, which he also donated. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

If Bill do Carmo’s long life of advocacy for equity speaks for itself, it may be what he did in the last 20 years of his life, however, that most endears him to the hearts of the city’s Cape Verdean community that formed him.

Do Carmo commissioned and paid for out of his own pocket a series of 11 paintings of New Bedford leaders as gifts to the New Bedford Free Public Library. Six of the Deborah Macy portraits are of prominent people of color who served New Bedford over the last half century. They are: Ruby Dottin, the first African American woman member of the School Committee whose dedication to city youth was legendary; Mary Barros, a revered Ward 4 City Councilor long active in education and women’s issues; Jibreel Khazan, one of the iconic 1960s civil rights protesters known as the Greensboro Four, who later lived in New Bedford; Lee Charlton, a president of the NAACP for 24 years who led the successful fight to end tracking in the New Bedford school system; Jack Custodio, a radical but beloved New Bedford activist who played an important role in minority advocacy in the city and do Carmo’s own portrait, which this week hangs with a black banner in memoriam in the main library’s Art Room.

Do Carmo was in a position to do it, and he felt that if he didn’t do it, no one else would. 

“He felt he had an obligation as he once told me,” wrote Carl Cruz of the New Bedford Historical Society and a longtime trustee of the Free Public Library, in a note to me. “If I don’t, who will?” he said Carmo asked.

“He wanted to see diversity on the walls in the library which included people of color and women,” said Cruz. “He didn’t want to see another 100 years go by without recognition of our city’s diversity.”

Editor’s note: This story was amended on April 27, 2024 to reflect James Ottaway’s correct role at The Standard-Times and to add biographical background to some of the subjects of the paintings Bill do Carmo donated to the New Bedford Free Public Library.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at [email protected].

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