Public Has Chance to Help Tell the Story of America’s and Haverhill’s First Socialist Mayor

This original painting by Mark Hayden is currently being auctioned off on eBay. (Courtesy photograph by Tom Grassi.)

With “socialism” in the headlines as part of this year’s presidential campaign, a local filmmaker says the story of America’s first socialist mayor, Haverhill’s John C. Chase, helps explains how the political philosophy has evolved over time.

E. Philip Brown is in the process of bringing his film, “The Socialists of Shoe City,” to the screen and has come up with a novel way to help the city, inspire interest in history and pay for the documentary. Copley Master Mark Hayden of Haverhill has completed a new painting of Chase.

Copley Master Mark Hayden of Haverhill with his new portrait of Haverhill Mayor John C. Chase. (Courtesy photograph.)

“It’s a very attractive portrait so I am going to auction off the original to raise money for the film,” Brown says.

The painting appears on the online auction site eBay and proceeds will pay for “The Socialists of Shoe City” to be entered in domestic and overseas film festivals and, especially, Academy Award-qualifying events. A print will also be donated to City Hall where images of most mayors are displayed, but not Chase.

Chase was first elected in 1898 during what was then partisan local elections. He served two, one-year terms, but Brown says his legacy may be misunderstood.

“He wasn’t really like a hardcore, textbook socialist, where he thinks the government should be running every business. He certainly wasn’t a communist and a lot of the real socialists weren’t happy about what was going on in Haverhill,” he explains.

The documentary, which could be released next month, includes interviews with Haverhill historian Patricia Trainor O’Malley, former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. Frank Novak of the “Point of Reference” cable television program has been selected to narrate the film.

Brown says the time is right to raise the topic. “I’ve been listening to the politicians and the pundits talking about socialism and democratic socialism, and people are all in a tizzy about it and young people are very interested in it like the millennials. A high percentage of them think it’s great and, I was like, we’ve been down this road before.”

When Brown heard a television pundit call Warren Buffet a socialist because the billionaire wants to raise taxes on high-income people, he realized people don’t know what the term means. He explains socialists around the turn of the last century—especially after the Haverhill shoe workers strike of 1895—made headway at the local level. Platforms called for paying city workers more, elevating railroad tracks over busy intersections, placing dangerous electrical wires underground, providing skilled-labor training and requiring the then-new natural gas and electric utilities to charge “more realistic rates.”

“They were gouging people—like with natural gas, the Haverhill Gas Company,” Brown explains

Other issues, he says, were factory conditions, plight of show workers, layoffs of seasonal workers and child labor.

Brown says his interest in Chase stems from his time as a Haverhill High School social studies teacher and taught Haverhill history in 2007. Besides Chase, Haverhill also had its first socialist city councilor and state Rep. James F. Carey. Eventually the fad wore off with Parkman B. Flanders serving as Haverhill’s last socialist mayor until 1923.

The eBay online auction lasts only a few days.

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