MIAMI — At a time when Miami was steeped in racial tension and Jim Crow laws impeded the success of many black people, the late M. Athalie Range bravely fought against decaying, segregated schools, built a historic political and civic career, and stood up for the African-American community.
Born Mary Athalie Wilkinson in 1915, Range moved with her parents, both Bahamian immigrants, from Key West to Miami in 1925.
“They were in pursuit of a better life,” said Range’s son Patrick Range, 68. “The [Ku Klux] Klan rode through the city one night doing what they do, and the next morning, my grandfather moved everyone to Miami. I’m sure that sparked something in her.”
Range graduated from the segregated Booker T. Washington High School at the height of the Depression. But she went from cleaning railroad cars in segregated Miami to advising the White House and many local and state power brokers.
In an effort to immortalize Range and recognize her lifelong accomplishments and unwavering dedication to the African-American community, the Florida Department of Transportation will rename a section of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami-Dade County as M. Athalie Range Boulevard.
The street renaming will take place during a ceremony at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22 at Saint Martha Catholic Church, 9301 Biscayne Boulevard in Miami Shores.
The section of Biscayne to be renamed stretches from Northeast 54th Street in Miami on the south, to Northeast 95th Street in El Portal to the north.
State Sen. Frederica Wilson and her organization, the 5000 Role Models of Excellent Project, spearheaded the efforts to rename the street.
“I’ve named many streets after patriarchs before,” said Wilson, “but no one deserves it more than Mother Range. She showed us how to do and handle our business.”
Range died on November 14, 2006, at age 91.
The street renaming efforts began shortly thereafter, Wilson said.
“We wanted to do more for her; an award or plaque wasn’t enough,’’ Wilson said.
“And naming a street,” Wilson continued, “wasn’t all she deserved. That’s why when taking it to Tallahassee, we asked for a highway – so that everyone would notice.”
David Friedman, marketing and media director of Virginia Key Beach Park Trust added, “That particular area [Biscayne Boulevard] was the hub of Mrs. Range’s accomplishments.”
In 1948, Range became president of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at Liberty City Elementary (now named Charles R. Drew Elementary School), which her children attended. At that time, the school comprised 1,200 students attending classes in portable buildings.
“She was a concerned parent,” Range’s son, Patrick said. “I remember her speaking of it. The parents were concerned that there were no facilities in which we could eat, and the drinking water was supplied through pumps that came directly from the ground.”
He added that there were white schools within a mile of Liberty City Elementary that had concrete buildings as well as all the other amenities expected by students and parents.
The parents held meetings, and decided to confront the school board.
“My mother, being outspoken and articulate, was chosen as the group’s spokesperson. She went down to the school board and expressed all of the group’s concerns,” he said.
After a series of meetings Patrick said, “we began to have hot lunches, and later, a building was actually built. Now that was really the beginning of her civic involvement.”
According to Patrick, his mother was always surrounded by men, her biggest supporters.
“Back then, it was easier for a black woman [than a black man] to be outspoken without harm coming to her and her family,’’ he said. “That, combined with her natural ability to point out the ills in the system, get to the point with clear and vivid language, was why she was always approached when there was a problem.”
Patrick described his mother as “a petite and humble person who took her positions in stride.”
In 1953, the Ranges opened the Range Funeral Home in Liberty City. When Range’s husband, Oscar Range, died suddenly in 1960, she obtained her funeral director certification from the New England Institute of Anatomy and Embalming, and began to operate the family business. It later expanded to three locations: Miami, Coconut Grove and Homestead.
About two years after Oscar’s death, a group of ministers came together, approached Range, and asked whether she would consider running for the city commission, Patrick said.
“After some thought, she agreed to do so,’’ he said. “After that, she never stopped.”
Among her many accomplishments, Range in 1965 became the first African-American woman to be elected to the Miami Board of Commissioners. She introduced several countywide ordinances, resulting in a stringent handgun law, updated fire codes, a restriction on the sale of glue to minors, and the creation of parks and play areas.
In 1971, she was appointed by then-Gov. Reuben Askew to serve as Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs. She was the first African-American to serve as head of a Florida state agency, a position she held until 1973.
Range walked riot-torn Miami urging calm, and fought for Haitian immigrants while attempting to find jobs for American-born blacks. She battled for more playgrounds, regular garbage pickups, and for black people to be given more government contracts and jobs. She shepherded women into becoming political leaders.
With a public service career that spans more that 50 years, Range was the recipient of more than 150 awards and honors, and served on numerous boards and committees, locally, statewide and nationally.
Many places have been named after her, including local parks, playgrounds and the post office near downtown Miami, said Cynda Gerson, office manager of the M. Athalie Range Cultural Arts Foundation (MARCAF).
Range founded MARCAF in 1997 to expand community awareness and appreciation for the performing arts, particularly African-Americans performing arts; honor selected individuals for their exemplary lifetime achievements and contributions to South Florida; provide support to gifted and talented young African-Americans on Miami-Dada County pursuing professional careers in the performing arts, and to support organizations providing structure and guidance to young people whose needs for character building are portrayed in their behavior.
The last project in which Range became involved was the restoration of Virginia Key Beach, the historic blacks-only beach on Key Biscayne.
“As a newcomer, I would not have been the one to really step up and lead that project,” admitted Gene Tinnie, the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust chair. “But there were three people that I knew and felt they were more than qualified to do so. If one or more decided to take it on, then we’d have a fighting chance. One of them was Mrs. Range. Of the three, she really understood the needs of the project.”
Tinnie said Range had to “give it [the project] some thought” as she was up in years and not sure she wanted to take on another project, “especially with the time and energy this one demanded. But after giving it some serious thought, she realized its value and what was at stake.’’
He continued: “From there, with Mrs. Range being the one to make presentations, we went from a rag-tag group of concerned citizens to a strong committee of people that gained respect.’’
Tinnie said he remembers Range saying many times that “they think we are just a group of people who have gotten excited about something and need to blow off steam for just a little while, and will soon go away.”
But Range, being a teacher to everyone, made the [Virginia Key] Trust much stronger, Tinnie said, and “better at what we were doing or trying to do. There simply isn’t enough you can say about her.
“It was the project she gave her last years to; one that really meant something to a lot of people. She was in the middle of caring for her family, her business, and retiring from her public role, and she not only took on this one more thing, but fully embraced it.”
Virginia Key Beach was re-dedicated and reopened on Feb. 22, 2008 in a move that saved the park from developers.
Photo: Mary Athalie Range
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Official designation of “M. Athalie Range Boulevard.”
WHEN: 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 22.
WHERE: St. Martha Catholic Church, 9301 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami Shores.
COST: Free and open to the public.
CONTACT: 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, 305-995-2451, ext. 2.