Dictionary of Virginia Biography

John Fulmer Bright (17 November 1877–29 December 1953), Richmond city mayor, was the son of Mary Samuel Davies Bright and George Hilliard Bright, a physician and native of South Carolina who settled in Richmond after the Civil War. He was born in the family home on West Grace Street and lived there all his life. Bright attended public schools and the Medical College of Virginia, where he received an M.D. in 1898. After graduation he established a successful private practice and also accepted a professorship in anatomy at his alma mater. Bright remained on the faculty through 1910, after which he became professor emeritus. He joined the Virginia National Guard in 1907 as a medical officer and rose to command the 1st Regiment Virginia Infantry, attaining the rank of colonel in 1920. During World War I he was a major in the 3d Battalion of the 116th United States Infantry at Camp McClellan, in Anniston, Alabama. From 1918 to 1923 Bright served as coroner for Henrico County. He never married.

J. Fulmer Bright first entered politics in 1922 with a successful bid to be one of the five men representing Richmond in the House of Delegates. He sat on the Committees on Asylums and Prisons, on Militia and Police, on Printing, and on Roads and Internal Navigation. In 1924 he defeated three-term incumbent mayor George Ainslie and thus began a sixteen-year tenure that gained him the reputation as probably the most colorful figure ever to preside over Richmond's affairs. The 1924 mayoral contest offered a striking contrast between Ainslie's attention to economic development, exemplified by road construction and maintenance, new schools, and enlarged police and fire services, and Bright's call for retrenchment and economy.

Bright captured the April primary by nearly 1,300 votes, largely as a result of strong support in the heavily working-class Jefferson and Madison Wards. The Richmond Labor Journal had for several years chided the Ainslie administration for neglecting public improvements in such neighborhoods. Labor and its press failed to recognize that as mayor Bright intended to reduce the overall role of local government in public improvements, rather than expand services to those previously neglected. Throughout his four terms as mayor, Bright consistently resisted appeals for government action either to encourage urban development or to resolve social and economic problems. Planning also took a back seat in his restricted conception of government's proper role.

Bright could point to an array of accomplishments during his four terms in office, including the establishment of Byrd Flying Field as a municipal airport, construction of bridges and a system of traffic lights, erection of the Virginia War Memorial Carillon in Byrd Park, and expansion of sewers, paving, curbs, and gutters, but he opposed many of these projects at least initially. The tone and substance of the Bright administration was better captured by the mayor's ample use of his veto power to halt projects and to assert preeminence in local policymaking. His relations with the common council and board of aldermen were stormy. On 7 June 1936 the latter body set a record by overriding five of Bright's vetoes in a single meeting.

A feud Bright began with the Richmond newspapers as early as 1925 raged for the next two decades. In 1932 he responded to a journalistic investigation of questionable purchasing practices by cutting off all official city advertising. Relations with the press broke down again at the end of that year after Bright arrested two communists who came to Richmond to organize the unemployed. When editorials questioned the arrests, the mayor ordered the police department to sever all relations with the newspapers. The papers, in turn, complained that the irritable mayor's fearful reaction to the radicals actually publicized their agitation.

Communists and labor organizers were not alone in angering the mayor. Bright fiercely opposed the New Deal, and his stubborn refusal to seek relief from the federal government during the darkest days of the Great Depression set Richmond apart from other southern cities. By the mid-1930s he acknowledged the need to tackle such problems as slum conditions but remained adamantly opposed to public housing. Instead, he insisted that solutions were the responsibility of local businessmen rather than government.

Bright's unwavering opposition to the federal housing program became a central issue in the election of 1940. His opponent, Gordon Barbour Ambler, hammered away at him for refusing to improve housing, back annexation, finance necessary public improvements, or reorganize city government. Bright responded by attempting to establish his record as a racial moderate and show that Richmond had not stood still during his tenure, but he could not overcome his reputation as an opponent of change and lost the election.

The Virginia National Guard was called into federal service in February 1941, but a disappointed Colonel Bright was relieved from active duty because of defective vision and arterial hypertension. In April he retired with the formal rank of brigadier general. Bright then ran for a seat in the House of Delegates but lost the primary. In December 1941 he was appointed assistant coordinator of the Virginia Defense Council in charge of tire rationing and, in May 1942, became state director of the Federal Office of Price Administration. In 1944 Bright considered another run for the mayor's office but, declaring that his duty must prevail over his desire, decided to retain his state position.

Throughout the 1940s Bright vociferously opposed various changes in Richmond's governmental structure and services. He waged a strident one-man crusade against a new city charter designed to replace Richmond's thirty-two-member bicameral city council with a single nine-member body. On 4 November 1947 the voters overwhelmingly approved the new charter, an action that, combined with reforms to reduce the mayor's power, ended the style of city government that Bright had practiced during his years in office. Thereafter he wore a piece of black crepe in his lapel as a sign of mourning. Bright was more successful in his opposition to an expressway plan for central Richmond in 1950 and 1951. Twice he forced city leaders to subject the plan to a referendum, and both times Richmond voters rejected it.

Bright belonged to a variety of fraternal organizations. He remained active in the Freemasons and Acca Temple until the end of his life. In 1950 John Fulmer Bright became medical adviser to the Industrial Commission of Virginia, a post he held until his death from a heart ailment on 29 December 1953. His will left funds to the city's poor children, made bequests to ten local churches, and specified that money from a trust fund he established for the three sisters who survived him be used after their deaths to improve public parks in East End neighborhoods. The newspapers with whom he had often feuded marked Bright's passing with editorials praising his courage and devotion to Richmond. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in that city.

Sources Consulted:
Robert C. Glass and Carter Glass Jr., Virginia Democracy (1937), 3:108–109; Birth Register, Richmond City, Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia (LVA); military service record questionnaire in Virginia War History Commission, Individual Service Records (Questionnaires), 1919–1924, Accession 37219, Record Group 66, LVA; Harry M. Ward, Richmond: An Illustrated History (1985), 246–247 (portrait); New York Times, 15 Jan. 1933; Richmond News Leader, 1 Sept. 1934, 3 Aug. 1940; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8 Sept. 1937 (portrait), 29 May 1990; Virginius Dabney, Richmond: The Story of a City (1976), 313–314, 320; Christopher Silver, Twentieth-Century Richmond: Planning, Politics, and Race (1984), 90–93, 130–131, 146–150, 176–181, 188–189; obituaries in Richmond News Leader and Richmond Times-Dispatch, both 30 Dec. 1953, and New York Times, 31 Dec. 1953; memorials in Richmond News Leader, 30 Dec. 1953, 1, 18 Jan. 1954, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 31 Dec. 1953, Report of the Adjutant General of the Commonwealth of Virginia (1954): 51, and Virginia Medical Monthly 81 (1954): 142.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Christopher Silver.

How to cite this page:
Christopher Silver,"John Fulmer Bright (1877–1953)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Bright_John_Fulmer, accessed [today's date]).

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