Doris Bunte arrived in Boston in 1953 with 98 cents to her name — and then a dime less after she bought a candy bar — before rising to become, for a time, arguably the most powerful woman in Boston politics.
“I think I was born working,” she said with a smile in a 1974 Globe interview. “I pasted feathers on hats and painted buttons on spindles. Then I folded towels and did domestic work for rich people in Brookline.”
And then she became part of history: the first Black woman elected to be a state representative in Massachusetts, the first Black woman to run the Boston Housing Authority, and the first housing project tenant to rise up and run it.
Mrs. Bunte, who later channeled her activism through lower-profile administrative roles, helping people outside the glare of public attention, died of cancer Monday in her Brookline home.
She was 87 and had moved to Brookline to live near her daughter a few years ago after spending much of her life in Roxbury.
“In my search for social justice I’ve been blessed,” she told the Globe in 2011, though those blessings often brought enormous challenges.
Mrs. Bunte was a strong advocate for Boston’s people of color and for the poor, an overlooked constituency in the halls of political power.
As a state representative, she was instrumental in securing funds to create Roxbury Community College, and she helped persuade colleagues to create a majority-Black state Senate district.
Mrs. Bunte also was the first Black woman to chair a state legislative committee in Massachusetts.
Few accomplishments, however, would have as lasting an impact as managing the comparatively calm desegregation of Boston’s public housing, which occurred only a few years after violence spurred by court-ordered school desegregation had brought the city uncomfortable national attention.
“One of the most difficult assignments anybody’s ever had was integrating public housing, in light of the history of Boston,” Raymond L. Flynn, who was Boston’s mayor when during those years, said Monday. “That’s her legacy. She rose to that challenge and she succeeded. And not only her, but the city succeeded and the tenants succeeded.”
The daughter of a single mother who had raised six children, and a single mother to three children herself, Mrs. Bunte knew well the social stigma that those who live in public housing face.
“Being poor is not the result of a flaw in character,” she told the Globe in 1989.
“Public housing is not a sexy issue,” she added. “People tell me all the time, ‘It’s not new and bright and chic and shiny, and nobody wants to put money into it.’ "
To her, though, it was an essential issue. Mrs. Bunte was almost equally attentive to raising the political prospects of people of color.
“She was just incredibly focused on the advancement of the African-American community in Boston, with a special emphasis on poor and working-class people,” said Byron Rushing, a longtime activist and former state legislator.
With Boston poised to have its first Black mayor, it’s important to remember that Mrs. Bunte “broke huge ground” in setting the stage for today’s elected officials of color, said Harry Spence, who was the court-appointed receiver running the Housing Authority when it was under court jurisdiction, just before she became the agency’s administrator.
“Her time at the housing authority was certainly important, and she then became a significant political elder, if you will,” Spence said.
“She was somebody sought out by anybody running for office in Boston or at the state level,” he added. “She was a very large and important figure in the development of the political life of Boston and Massachusetts, and in particular in the political development of the Black community.”
The fifth of six siblings, Doris Brown was born in New York City on July 2, 1933, and was raised by Evelina Johnson Brown, a single mother who went by Evelyn.
Her mother cleaned people’s houses, was active with New Deal Democrats, and had been a pioneering person of color working with the city’s Board of Elections.
Having dropped out of high school, Mrs. Bunte was raising her three children alone in New York at age 20, her marriage annulled.
“I had no money, no husband, and no job. The only thing I had was hope,” she told the Globe in 1974. “I got this crazy idea that there must be more to life.”
Taking a train to Boston, she landed a factory job, read piles of books at night to hone secretarial skills, and became a tenant leader in Roxbury’s Orchard Park housing project.
A second marriage, in Boston, ended in divorce. Mrs. Bunte resumed her education and received her high school diploma the night the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — just before her daughter, Yvette Johnson, graduated from high school.
“I guess I was unconsciously preparing for something,” recalled Mrs. Bunte, who was part of a lineage of mothers lifting themselves higher.
Johnson said her mother had “learned from a strong woman. We come from a whole line of strong women. My great-grandmother was also like that.”
Mrs. Bunte took courses from Boston and Harvard universities and received a master’s degree from the latter.
In 1969, Mayor Kevin White appointed her to be the first woman to serve on the Housing Authority board.
After Mrs. Bunte resisted White’s attempts to make a number of patronage appointments to the authority, he accused her of misconduct and tried to oust her. She denied White’s claims, but the battle spilled into hearings before the City Council, which voted 5-4 to support his dismissal request.
Mrs. Bunte was returned to the board by the state Superior Court, which cleared her of misconduct, and by the Supreme Judicial Court, which upheld the Superior Court ruling in 1972. She called the ordeal “a great learning experience.”
“I was just a little Black lady from Roxbury fighting a mayor, but I was right and I won,” she told the Globe in 1974. “It taught me a lot about politics.”
Spence said he couldn’t recall “any precedent for that kind of attack on someone by a mayor of a city. And in fact he made her career.”
She was elected to the Legislature in 1972, serving until January 1985, a couple of months after Flynn appointed her to run the Housing Authority.
Mrs. Bunte stepped down from the BHA in 1992. She went on to work for the Boston University School of Public Health and the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University, retiring in 2010.
A service will be announced for Mrs. Bunte, who in addition to her daughter leaves a son, Harold Brown of California; three grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; and six great-great-grandchildren.
At various points in Mrs. Bunte’s life, “she took care of every single one of her siblings and her mother in one way or another,” said her grandson Bernard Johnson of Boston. “She was maybe 4 foot 10, but when she walked into a room, she commanded the attention and respect and admiration of everyone.”
Mrs. Bunte saw her lifetime of helping others as something preordained.
“I’ve been blessed,” she told the Globe in 1990. “I don’t know what it is in destiny that determines who gets the opportunities and who doesn’t. I did.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.