I was reminded of Al Bright about a year ago when reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste. In the book she tells the story of a city championship Little League team that celebrated with a picnic and swimming outing at one of Youngstown’s pools. One member of that team was Black. He had to remain outside the fence, with teammates bringing him food. They couldn’t bring him the pool. After parents argued with the pool management, the boy was allowed to sit in a raft to be pulled around the pool by a lifeguard. For a few minutes. Everyone else had to exit the pool. The lifeguard whispered to him, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.” That Black Little Leaguer was Al Bright. The year was 1951. (Source: Sydney Morning Herald).
That was racism in Youngstown in 1951. That would have discouraged many others. Not Bright. The picture above is from a 50 year old news story in The Vindicator on August 15, 1971, noting that Bright was going to be the featured speaker at the National Junior Achievers Conference and was going to be awarded Speaker of the Year Award. The article also notes that he had joined Junior Achievers in 1958, was president of the chapter in 1959, and won the Achievers of the Year Award that same year. At the national conference in 1959, he was persuaded by the president of Colgate-Palmolive, S. Bayard Colgate, to go to college instead of barber school. He won a scholarship at Youngstown University and graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science. A year later, he added a Master of Arts in painting from Kent State.
He taught art and painting at Youngstown after graduation. Louis Zona, executive director of the Butler was one of his students! Then, in 1970, he established the Black Studies program at Youngstown State and directed it for 18 years. He was the first full-time Black faculty member at Youngstown. During this time, he hosted Alex Haley, Jesse Jackson, Maya Angelou, and Shirley Chisholm at the university. Marvin Haire, one of Bright’s first students in the program, wrote:
“[The black studies program] sought to infuse the systematic study of African people into university curriculum and do that in a way that provided exposure to a wide range of what we would call the black experience, including music, art, history, politics and education. So the original vision was to build a program that offered that kind global awareness to students who took courses.”
He never stopped painting and his works are part of permanent collections at The Butler Institute of American Art, the Kent State University Gallery, the Harmon and Harriet Kelly Collection of African-American Art, Canton Museum of Art. Roanoke Museum of Fine Arts and Northeastern University. He exhibited his art in more than 100 solo exhibitions over his career. In 2012, he painted “Portals in Time” to a live jazz performance at the Akron Art Museum.
He was awarded the the Distinguished Teaching Award from YSU in 2006. He died October 28, 2019 at age 79. For my last two years at Youngstown State, I worked in the Student Development Program. Bright spoke for the program regularly and helped open the eyes of this white guy from the Westside to the beauty of black culture and the outlines of black history. I was struck that I never was diminished in my own racial identity but enlarged in my appreciation of the culture and history of Blacks in Youngstown. He built bridges with people rather than walls. He could have been bitter. Instead, he was better, as a program founder, an artist, as a mentor to younger Black leaders. He was born and died in Youngstown. His life was a gift to the city.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!