Louvenia Dorsey Bright, an impassioned educator and local activist, wasn’t looking for the spotlight when she moved to Vermont in 1971. But she would ultimately make history 17 years later, when she was elected Vermont’s first woman of color to serve in the state Legislature.
Bright, who would go on to serve three terms in Vermont’s House representing South Burlington, died July 29 at her home in Park Forest, Ill. She was 81.
Remembering his mother in a conversation with VTDigger on Tuesday, Bill Bright said “shy” or “introverted” were “too strong” adjectives to describe her demeanor, though her personality was “leaning that way.” But there was an understated persistence in her approach as a legislator, activist, educator and mother, which Bill Bright said garnered results.
“We do the work, we get the results and then we keep it moving,” Bill Bright remembered as his mother’s approach. “We don’t have to scream and yell and talk about it.”
The Bright family moved to Vermont by way of Detroit in 1971, when Bill Bright’s father accepted a professorship at the University of Vermont’s education department. Louvenia Dorsey Bright was also an educator, earning her certificate of advanced studies in education administration at the University of Vermont and teaching at Colchester and Burlington high schools.
Bill Bright said his mother was “very aware” in 1971 that they were moving to a state that was at the time — and remains — among the whitest in the nation. His mom knew the family was “taking a chance.”
“You’re coming from Detroit, Michigan, right? So urban to rural, bigger Black population to almost none population,” Bill Bright said. “I can remember her talking about the interview process, and the (University of Vermont) dean’s wife taking her around town, and her realizing she hadn’t seen a single African American person since she had been in the state, and it had been a couple of days.”
The Bright family took the chance, and things were not always easy in Vermont. When his family moved to Vermont, Bill Bright was a toddler, but his parents later told him about the first house they wanted to buy in Vermont. They liked the house and loved the neighborhood — then obtained the Homeowners Association documents, which explicitly prohibited Black families from the neighborhood. It was the early 1970s.
“While that may have been illegal at the time, they just never bothered to take it out of their HOA documents,” Bill Bright said. “So even seeing it is kind of a message. … There were always things like that.”
There were other incidents or dynamics that, over time, accumulated. For instance, Louvenia Dorsey Bright couldn’t find a hairstylist in Vermont capable of doing her hair, her son said, so she would take girls’ trips to New York to get her hair relaxed and — decades before ordering on Amazon became a way of life — have her hair products mailed to her.
“It’s microaggression, I get it,” Bill Bright told VTDigger. “But if it happens all the time, the buildup is major.”
Bill Bright’s mother, always interested in race and gender equity, attempted to chip away at the racism she saw in Vermont by getting involved in her community. She served as vice president of the Black Professionals Network of Vermont; as a gender and equity consultant to the Rural Education Center; and as a member of the Vermont State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Minority Women’s Business Partnership and her local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter.
“She wasn’t looking to run. She wasn’t looking to be political,” Bill Bright said. But his mother’s local activism got her noticed.
In 1988, Bright launched her campaign for the Vermont Legislature, emblazoning her campaign material with the slogan, “The time is RIGHT for BRIGHT.” (Subsequent reelection campaigns implored voters to reelect Bright with the brilliantly pop culture-relevant slogan, “Do the Bright Thing.”)
Bill Bright was studying political science at the University of Vermont when his mother decided to run for office, and remembers being surprised at first, and then realizing his mom made perfect sense for the job. Still, candidly, he told VTDigger, he didn’t expect her to win.
In her campaign, Bill Bright said he heard no discussions from his parents about his mother’s potential to make history. They may have had private conversations themselves and with campaign strategists, he said, but his mother did not craft her campaign messaging around being “the first.”
“I, in fact, think if she had made a bigger deal of that, she probably wouldn’t have won,” Bill Bright said. “My sense is that they made a conscious decision, an intentional decision not to run as an African American woman, or the first African American woman.”
He paraphrased his mother’s campaign strategy: “We’re not going to make that an issue for people to talk about. If you want to bring it up that I’m Black, that’ll be on you. Because I didn’t say it.”
Bright went on to serve three terms in the Vermont House, focusing her legislative work on race and gender equity, and rising to become ranking member of the House Health and Welfare Committee. It was in that seat that she shepherded through Vermont’s first Parental and Family Leave Act.
But in the Statehouse and, more broadly, in Vermont, Bill Bright said his mother felt isolated. There were times when she felt, “I’m standing right here and you’re just kind of dismissing my presence,” Bill Bright recounted. It was in those moments that she resolved to be more headstrong, more outspoken — but the constant pressure wore on her.
“It just builds and you’re just like, ’Someone else can do this now. I did my work. I made my mark. … This is a stress I don’t need to have on me,’” Bill Bright said.