The Queens of King: Miami-Dade
MIAMI — M. Athalie Range barely reached five feet tall in high-heeled shoes. What she packed in stature and substance greatly exceeded anything a measuring tape could reflect.
Born Mary Athalie Wilkinson in Key West on Nov. 7, 1915, “Ma Range,” as she became affectionately known throughout the community, married Oscar Lee Range in 1937. After her husband became a licensed funeral home director, his unexpected death due to a heart attack in 1960 left her as a single parent of four young children.
Range enrolled in the New England Institute of Anatomy and Embalming to obtain her funeral director certification in order to operate the family business, working there until just a few months before her death in 2006.
The petite wonder who made a business suit look elegant, with her flawlessly coifed hair and stylish high-heeled shoes, became known for her calm, highly effective resolve in getting things done for the black community — even when doing so meant risking life and limb.
Regardless of the charged racial climate of the day, Range understood that action spoke far louder than words, and effectively utilized that approach on a number of occasions.
As Parent Teacher Association president at her children’s school in 1948, she had more than 100 parents descend upon the all-white school board meeting to demand better accommodations for their children, ultimately resulting in the construction of Liberty City Elementary — the first school for African Americans built in the district in 21 years.
Her son Patrick said his mother “really assessed situations thoroughly before making a move on them. You just knew that whatever she would set out to do, she was going to accomplish it.”
Her assessment of the disparate trash pickup in the black community and the Miami City Commission’s failure to take action to correct the situation resulted in Range having her neighbors haul their garbage and dump it on the desks of the commissioners.
One of Range’s most important stances came after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When King was shot down in the spring of 1968, riots erupted in black urban areas across the country,
including Miami’s Liberty City. Available on YouTube is priceless footage of a youthful looking, 52-year-old Range, urging calm.
“I think it is incumbent upon every leader, every citizen and every follower to emulate the man who has become a martyr for the cause of non-violence,” she said. “I think we cannot afford to let this man have fallen in vain.”
Her son Patrick recalls the precise moment that he and his mother learned of Dr. King’s murder.
“I do remember vividly, mother and I were at a function in Miami Lakes Country Club. That’s when we got the news and of course, immediately we left and came home. I think she must’ve been on the (city) commission at that time. Naturally, we were stunned. Our house was very, very quiet. It was more, ‘How could this happen?’”
He said that despite feeling angry about King’s death, his mother remained measured in her responses to inquiries posed to her from the media — “Understanding that generally people were going to be very upset and that there was going to be a need to keep people calm,” Patrick added.
Working closely with her in the family business afforded Patrick the opportunity to be at his mother’s side and to observe the consistent calm that she exuded in all situations. Her composed, resolute demeanor was a factor when a group of Miami’s most prominent black ministers visited the Range home to encourage her to run for the city commission in 1965.
“They had decided among themselves that she was the most likely person, if any, that was electable in the city,” he explained.
Although she won the primary, her opponent’s playing the race card in the white community cost her the runoff election, Pat Range shared. His mother, he said, held her head high and refused to stoop to the unsavory level of her opponent, who later apologized.
The community’s love and respect for Range continue to run deep. Community leaders who dare to make a difference are honored during an annual celebration of her life that marks its 15th year on Jan. 21. The hugely popular M. Athalie Range Cultural Arts Foundation Annual Gala will recognize local leaders Thelma Gibson, Bill Diggs, H.T. Smith and Marlon Hill.
The foundation acknowledges Range as having set the pace as “the first African American since Reconstruction and the first woman to head a Florida state agency, the Department of Community Affairs. She also served as Chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Project, which was established to preserve the Virginia Key Beach Park, once the only public beach in Dade County open to African Americans.”
Honors for Range are numerous and varied, more than 125 local, state and national, among them her induction into the Florida Women's Hall of Fame in 1997 and a bipartisan honor by Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Her two-year appointment by President Carter to the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK) governing board was an honor that struck a personal chord, Pat Range shared.
RIDING THE RAILS
“She always had a fascination with the railroad. In her younger years she worked at Florida East Coast. She really enjoyed traveling by train.” So much so, he said, that his mother traveled by train to California to attend a national convention.
At the first Range Foundation gala in 1983, Pat gave his mother the ultimate train lover’s gift.
“Knowing how much she enjoyed the train, I gave her a trip on the Orient Express in Europe. She and my sister took the trip. I was so happy that I thought to do that for her.”
He pauses, before adding: “She was a fantastic person. Just thinking about her fills me. I think about her often, every day.”
IF YOU GO
M. ATHALIE RANGE FOUNDATION 15th Annual Gala Jan. 21
WHAT: The M. Athalie Range Cultural Arts Foundation’s 15th Annual Performing Arts Fundraiser, with special performance by the Dillard Center for the Arts Jazz Ensemble.
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 21, VIP reception 6:00 p.m., program 7:30 p.m., performance 8:15 p.m.
WHERE: Gusman Theater, Gusman Hall, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami.
TICKETS: VIP $150, general $75.
OTHER: Black tie. For tickets, sponsorship levels or other information call 305-576-3790.
ON THE NET
Photo: M. Athalie Range