Doris Bunte, a mentor to many
Trailblazing legislator, public housing administrator leaves rich legacy
DORIS BUNTE, who died this week at age 87, was a wonderful woman, a magnificent mentor, and a prodigious politician. But the word that describes her best is “Mother.” Doris was a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. She was also a mother to many more than her biological offspring.
As the first African-American woman ever elected to Massachusetts Legislature, Doris Bunte was a political trailblazer who was involved in politics for all of the right reasons: She wanted to use political action to improve the lives and the living conditions of black people in Boston’s black neighborhoods, whose needs were sometimes overwhelming. And she wanted to give black and brown people a voice and a seat at the table in the political decision-making at the local, state, and federal levels – a voice that had rarely been heard.
When newly-elected Boston Mayor Ray Flynn appointed Doris administrator of the Boston Housing Authority in 1984, she became the first former resident of public housing to head a major public housing authority in the United States. The BHA, at that time, was the fourth-largest provider of public housing in the nation.
She would win six more elections, serving for a total of 14 years. While on Beacon Hill, she was a founding member and chair of the Massachusetts Legislative Black Caucus, working in concert with state Reps. Mel King, Saundra Graham, Royal Bolling Jr., Raymond Jordan, Mary Goode, Robert Fortes, and Thomas Lopes, and state Sens. Royal Bolling Sr. and Bill Owens.
As a black legislator, Doris soon found that black and brown citizens from all neighborhoods of Boston and other cities and towns across the Commonwealth would reach out to her and the other black politicians on Beacon Hill, even if they did not live in their legislative districts. She and the Black Legislative Caucus worked closely with Gov. Frank Sargent and Gov. Michael Dukakis to address the basic needs and the political aspirations of black people in Massachusetts.
Doris exemplified moral and courageous leadership. Her leadership style was, in a very real sense, all styles. It was an adaptive and effective leadership method that made her transition from lawmaker to BHA administrator smooth and natural. Her grace and empathy for others defined her. Doris often said poverty is not the result of a flaw in character.
Doris faced two momentous challenges as the leader of the BHA: Complying with a federal court order to desegregate public housing in Boston neighborhoods, particularly in South Boston, Charlestown, East Boston, and the North End, and the desperate need to rehabilitate thousands of public housing units citywide, some of which had been boarded-up and unusable for years. (The court-order resulted from a successful lawsuit, filed by the Boston chapter of the NAACP in a case led by attorneys Dianne Wilkerson and Barbara Arnwine.)
Major media, both local and national, covered the desegregation effort daily – because many thought it was destined to become the Boston public schools busing conflagration all over again. Mayor Flynn and Doris Bunte worked hard with public housing residents, city, state, and federal political leaders, the Boston Police Department, and the media to ensure that the mandated desegregation did not lead to major incidents of violence. Some long-term public housing residents in white Boston neighborhoods believed that something of great value –– affordable, safe, and subsidized housing – was being taken away from them. Flynn and Bunte knew that the long-standing segregation in Boston’s public housing had to be ended.
Boston has many public housing developments relative to the city’s size – housing more than 60,000 people between city-owned developments and Section 8 housing voucher–holders. It’s a legacy of former US House Speaker John W. McCormack — a native of South Boston – who made certain that Boston received significant federal funding to build and maintain public housing developments.
In the redevelopment effort, Doris lobbied vigorously, pushing both the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and state Executive Office of Communities and Development for funding to redevelop and redesign public housing developments, giving residents more attractive places to live and a greater sense of ownership in their neighborhoods. During her tenure as BHA administrator, she directed more than $300 million for infrastructure improvements in Boston public housing.
Doris Bunte always took the time to encourage, teach, and serve as a nurturer to individuals from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. A native New Yorker who grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she possessed intelligence, toughness, persistence, determination, and a fearlessness that made her one of the most effective political leaders that Boston and Massachusetts have ever seen. Her legacy will serve as an inspiration for generations to come.We will not see her like again.
Bill Wright is the former director of communications for the Boston Housing Authority. Barry Lawton served in numerous state legislative staff positions from 1978 to 2004.