Richmond Mayor J. Fulmer Bright served refreshments to orphan children, some of whom were also patients in the local hospitals. The annual event occurred from 1934 until 1941.
John Fulmer Bright was elected Richmond’s mayor in 1924 and for the next 16 years, he demonstrated a profound lack of ideas except to say “no” to almost everything. He wielded a forceful veto stamp that so provoked the Board of Aldermen that on June 7, 1936, the body made city history by overriding five of Bright’s vetoes in a single session.
Though three at-large mayors followed Bright, his administration became exhibit A in the case against an elected mayor. In the late '40s, the city changed its charter to a council-city manager form of government to prevent the rise of his like again. (A little more than half a century later, when Richmond went back to an elected mayor, the people chose former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, who, in his obstinacy at least, might have been the closest thing to Bright since Bright.)
Virginius Dabney, a newspaper reporter during Bright’s era, described him as “often a reasonable and courteous man, but he had inflexible views on some subjects which nobody would change.”
Bright was born on Nov. 17, 1877 at 408 W. Grace St. (a VCU parking deck today). Aside from stints in the National Guard and Army, he stayed in that home until a fatal heart attack on Dec. 29, 1953. He never married, and lived in the townhouse with his sisters and married relatives and servants. He was the only son of Mary Samuel Davies and physician George Hilliard Bright, who, after the Civil War, moved from South Carolina to Richmond. Bright graduated from the Medical College of Virginia in 1898. He opened a practice, specialized in dentistry, briefly taught anatomy at MCV and, after 1910, became a professor emeritus. He served as Henrico County’s coroner from 1918 to 1923.
Bright matured into a good-looking and compact man. He dressed impeccably and his manner was described as almost courtly. The Richmond Times-Dispatch eulogized him as a “graceful and fluent speaker … he could ‘skin’ an opponent verbally with the artistry of a skilled fencer.” He carried himself as befit a colonel and later a brigadier general in the National Guard (through the First Virginia Regiment — its monument is at Park and Meadow). He entered the military unit in a medical capacity, but rose to command the First Virginia. During World War I, he was stationed in Alabama, but weak vision and hypertension kept him from active duty in World War II. He belonged to the Sons of the Revolution and the Confederate Veterans, the Masons, the Knights Templar, Odd Fellows and Shriners. On paper, Bright epitomized what a modern upper-class Richmonder wanted in a mayor: a sustainer of traditional structure.
His political life began in 1922 as a single-term member of the five-man group representing Richmond in the Virginia General Assembly. In his 1924 mayoral run, Bright unseated Mayor George Ainslie, whom he castigated as a spendthrift. Ainslie spent taxpayer money to improve roads, build new schools and hire additional firefighters and police officers. Labor leaders accused Ainslie of ignoring working-class voters, who rallied behind Bright, whom they seemed to think supported the upgrade of services. He did not. Bright oversaw few improvements to anything anywhere. Exceptions included the Robert E. Lee Bridge and the Carillon. Bright eschewed city planning. He preferred the guidance of businesses and developers to grow the city. Bright trumpeted “good government for less money or better government for the same money.”
Newspapers that once endorsed him turned critical, though he was elected four times, apparently a beneficiary of weaker opponents and voter tendency to support the status quo.
Matters worsened during the Great Depression, when New York Communist Abe Tompkin and Richmond activist Thomas L. Stone sought to organize the unemployed. Some 11,000 Richmonders were out of work, many of them black.
On Bright’s orders, police harassed Tompkin and Stone; their many arrests on spurious charges were dismissed on appeal. Bright ordered Tompkin physically tossed from his outer office when the organizer sought an audience. A dramatic hunger march on (old) City Hall of blacks and whites amid a snowstorm melted away after police clubbed Stone.
At the bottom of the Great Depression, Bright advocated a limited role for government and opposed incurring debt or using tax increases to fund city improvements. He ignored Richmond’s poor housing conditions, particularly in black neighborhoods, and he refused to apply for federal New Deal assistance. He also opposed public housing, calling it “unsound, unbusiness-like, undemocratic, un-American and wrong in principle.” This stand led to his 1940 defeat by Gordon Barbour Ambler.
On Nov. 4, 1947, voters approved a new charter that shrunk the 32-member, two-chamber city legislature. The new body, a nine-member council, elected from its number a ceremonial mayor and hired a professional city manager. Bright responded by wearing a black armband or crepe in his lapel to mourn the passing of, as he termed, the “splendid form of government.”
He went on to serve on various boards and agitated against expressways, notably the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike, which he said substituted “a nightmare for a ditch.”
He remained a staunch Democrat and publicly supported Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 presidential bid.
Bright’s estate provided for his sisters and for a foundation in his name, which committed itself to religious and community causes. Early in 2016, a Peace Fountain dedicated to victims’ advocate Alicia Rasin was erected by the Friends of Jefferson Park and the City of Richmond across from her former Princess Anne Avenue residence. The fountain was a gift of the J. Fulmer Bright Foundation.