The Association for the Study of African American Life and History theme for Black History Month 2021 focuses on the African American family and its contributions to the nation and one Ward 8 family has helped their neighbors through public service to benefit the ward and the District.
The James Bunn family has lived in Ward 8 for decades and they have gotten involved in its civic and political affairs, said Sheila Bunn, eldest child of James and Linda Bunn.
“Public service has been and continues to be a family affair for us,” Sheila said. “Public service means being a voice in your community, neighborhood and block and trying to make things better for everyone. It also means making sure everyone has a seat at the table and improving conditions in your neighborhood. My father, James Bunn, would always say, ‘How can we make this better?’”
Throughout the years, James Bunn and his children have forgone possible lucrative careers in business, public policy and government service to focus on helping their neighbors in Ward 8 and the city.
James, born in Baltimore and lived his childhood in North Carolina before joining the Air Force. He came to the District in 1964 to recuperate from an injury at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and “he fell in love with the city and Ward 8,” Sheila said.
In 1970, James Bunn purchased the “Bunn Building” located on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE. For many years, James Bunn had his barbershop, barber and beauty supply store, grocery store and carryout at his building.
However, James Bunn became better known for his political activism and civic involvement. He served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner, chairman of the Ward 8 Democrats, chairman and executive director of the Far Southeast Community Organization, chairman of Congress Heights Main Streets and executive director of the Ward 8 Business Council.
James served on the D.C. Retirement Board as an appointee of then D.C. Council Chairman John Wilson from 1991-1995 and from 2012 until his death in 2013 from then D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
Shelia said since his death, many people say to her what her father meant to them.
“I meet many people who say to me how Dad really affected their lives,” she said.
Sheila also said her mother, Linda, “was a sweet soul who was supportive of my Dad.”
“Mom would attend PTA meetings at our schools and made sure at least one parent was at our activities supporting us,” she said.
Sheila presently works for D.C. Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) as his chief of staff. She has worked for D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton as an aide, as a Clinton administration staffer under then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shala, and as Gray’s deputy chief of staff when he served as the District’s mayor.
Sheila presently volunteers as the corresponding secretary for the Ward 8 Democrats and ran for the Ward 8 Council seat in a special election on April 28, 2015 to replace deceased lawmaker Marion S. Barry Jr.
Sheila said as a youngster, she would accompany her father to community meetings.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” she said. “My love for public service came from seeing how he operated in the community.”
Rodney Bunn agreed with his sister.
“Dad always told us it’s not about you,” he said, “but about others.”
James Bunn II said his Dad’s activism convinced him to help people but not in the political arena.
“My decision to become a firefighter had to do with my father’s businesses being located next to Engine Company 25 on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE,” said James II, a 15-year member of the D.C. force. “My brother and I would associate with the firefighters stationed there. It was like a Boys & Girls Club there to us.”
Rodney, who holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Johnson C. Smith University, joined his brother’s profession and has been on the job for 13 years.
Sheila has her daughter, Logan, accompany her to meetings just like she did with her father.
“We are our children’s first teachers,” she said. “I want her to see what I do. It is important to expose children to diverse people and ideas.”
All the Bunn children live in Ward 8 and have made a commitment to stay there like their father did.
“We live here because we wanted to stay where we feel comfortable,” Rodney said.