When Kate Bennett was named to head the Boston Housing Authority in late 2019, succeeding the great Bill McGonagle, Doris Bunte stopped by for a visit.
Bunte, who had headed the agency three decades earlier, came bearing urgent advice.
She told Bennett she should immediately send a letter to the BHA’s tenants, introducing herself and explaining her priorities. Bennett quickly agreed.
“Good,” Bunte told her, reaching into her purse. “I’ve already written the letter for you.”
Bunte, who died Sunday night at the age of 87, was a true legend, and not just in the corridors of the BHA. She was a tenant activist in an era when tenants were demanding a real voice in public housing. She was a Black female state representative when there was almost no such thing. When she became a former tenant who ascended to the leadership of the city’s Housing Authority, it was one more step in a long career of successfully challenging power, and transforming who held it in this city.
“She never relented in her advocacy for the lowest-income residents of this City,” Bennett said in an e-mail. “When I spoke to her just recently, she said, ‘Kate, you’ve got to keep fighting for us.’ I will truly miss her passion, her compassion, and her friendship.”
Simply put, Doris Bunte was a warrior. From the time she arrived in Boston in the late 1950s, she was on a quest to make life better for working people, and she was fierce in that pursuit.
When Mayor Kevin White named Bunte — then a tenant activist at Orchard Park, now Orchard Gardens — to the BHA’s board in 1969, he may have expected her to follow orders from City Hall. But he was to find out that he was dealing with someone with a strong mind of her own.
White’s infamous attempt to oust her was rebuffed by the City Council, and, later, the Supreme Judicial Court. Bunte had fought City Hall and won, and in the process was launched as a real political player.
That led to her election to the State House in 1974, where she helped found the Legislative Black Caucus and was a driving force for the first majority-Black State Senate district.
“It was phenomenally interesting,” she told me in 2011, speaking of her years in the Legislature. “I learned that the less you have, the more important government is. The more you have, the less dependent you are.”
Her years at the helm of the BHA — which she was the first former tenant to lead — were marked primarily by the successful project of integrating public housing. Under pressure from the NAACP, and with the searing conflict of court-ordered school desegregation still smoldering across the city, public housing integration was fraught.
But the BHA performed admirably. The housing developments of Charlestown and South Boston are now effectively the most integrated neighborhoods in Boston. That’s her legacy.
A public housing development in Roxbury was named in Bunte’s honor in 2018.
“With this renaming event, we honor the most significant friend and staunchest advocate for the residents in the 80-year history of the BHA,” her friend McGonagle said that day.
Bunte’s contributions to public housing are huge, but her influence goes far beyond that. She forced her way into a political arena in which women — and particularly women of color — were not only scarce, but virtually banned. She fought mayors and won, she walked into the State House fighting to increase representation and won.
When you watch Andrea Campbell, Michelle Wu, and (probably) Kim Janey run for mayor of Boston this year, understand that they stand on Doris Bunte’s shoulders.
For her, activism wasn’t a career, it was a life. Whether in government or elsewhere, fighting for people was just what she did, right up to the end. It was never about her; it was about improving the world around her.
“I’ve had wonderful opportunities,” she once told me. “In my search for social justice I’ve been blessed.”