M. Athalie Range

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M. Athalie Range, whose fight against decaying, segregated schools launched a historic political career that took her to City Hall, Tallahassee and Washington, died Tuesday evening. She was 91.

Range went from cleaning railroad cars in segregated Miami to advising the White House and scores of state and local power brokers.

In the 1960s, she became Miami's first African American to serve on the City Commission. The next decade saw her become the first black -- and woman -- in Florida's history to serve in a high state government post. President Jimmy Carter later appointed her to serve on the National Railroad Passenger Corp.

Everyone from U.S. presidents down courted Range's favor. They knew she could bring in the vote when it counted in a close election. She helped Metrorail become reality, In another close referendum, she led the fight to defeat a proposed property tax roll back.

Spurred by a deep passion that blacks preserve a sense of their heritage, in her 80s Range started a cultural arts foundation. She also took the reins of the Virginia Key Beach Trust to build a museum to Miami's former ''colored'' beach. Her rationale was a desire to ``rebuild what we once had as a living memorial to our culture and the people who used to go there.''

Although she loved Miami, the elegant -- and eloquent -- Range never hesitated to criticize the poverty, despair and racism that grew within its borders.

Miami, she once said, is ``a beautiful red apple. . .rotten at the core.''

While other community leaders hid, Range walked riot-torn Miami urging calm. She fought for Haitian immigrants while attempting to find jobs for American-born blacks. She worked for gun control. She battled for more playgrounds and regular garbage pickups. She fought for blacks to be given more government contracts and jobs. And she shepherded women into becoming political leaders.

Range stood a svelte 5-feet-tall. For 22 years, she topped the scales at 97 pounds.

But Range was too busy to think about her personal appearance. She carried no mirror in her handbag. Hurrying to meetings, she didn't always comb her hair or check her lipstick.

''That's the reason for some of those awful pictures you see,'' Range once told a Miami Herald reporter. ``But you have to be ready to move fast or you'll miss something.''

She was born Mary Athalie Wilkinson on Nov. 7, 1915, in Key West. Her parents were Bahamian immigrants who moved to Miami before Range went to first grade. Her father, Edward Wilkinson, worked his way up to becoming a foreman in a cigar factory and on the loading docks.

Range's close family life shielded her from some of the pain of Jim Crow segregation.

For decades, blacks had to have identification cards to cross the MacArthur Causeway to Miami Beach. The police stations provided separate drinking fountains -- as did other public agencies.

She graduated from the segregated Booker T. Washington High School at the height of the Depression. There was no money for college. Jobs were scarce.

She got a big break during World War II: picking up trash in railroad cars. ''It paid good money,'' Range recalled.

She married Oscar Range in 1937 and they had four children. The Ranges' first home was in the Liberty Square public housing projects.

She helped her husband open a storefront mortuary in 1953 in the heart of Liberty City. It later became an imposing funeral home, one of Liberty City's most successful businesses. It was the first of three Range mortuaries.

From the start, though, Range worked hard for community improvements.

As president of the Liberty City Elementary PTA, she became angry at the conditions in the overcrowded, black-only school. Two years before Martin Luther King began his civil rights campaign in Montgomery, Ala., Range started her own battle in Miami in 1953: She filled the auditorium with 150 blacks at an all-white school board meeting. And she demanded immediate improvements.

Stunned, the school board promised her more than what she dreamed of: immediate improvements plus a new Liberty City elementary school, the first built in black Miami in a generation.

A few years later, when neighborhood schools were overcrowded again, she pushed for desegregation at all-white Orchard Villa Elementary. She partly was emboldened by the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed the separate but equal practice in public education.

On the first day of school in 1959, she walked her youngest son Gary to Orchard Villa.

Range was just starting.

She became a driving force behind a massive effort to register blacks to vote. Her husband, Oscar, helped integrate Crandon Park.

Then, her world turned upside-down in eight minutes.

In 1960, her husband died from a heart attack at their breakfast table.

She went back to school and became a licensed funeral director. She also became president of the now defunct Roosevelt Savings & Loan Association, one of the area's first integrated banking firms.

But Range never gave up her public service.

Instead, in September 1965, she made history at an NAACP meeting at St. John Baptist Church in Overtown. To the few who braved a rainstorm, Range announced she was becoming the first black in Miami's history to run for the City Commission.

''The audience gasped as one, then rose to applaud Mrs. Range for several minutes,'' The Miami Herald reported.

The commission race became of the city's most exciting -- and controversial.

After Range finished first in the primary, she slugged it out with the second-highest vote getter, attorney Irwin Christie, in the runoff.

It turned ugly. A sound truck traveled throughout white neighborhoods, blaring an ominous message: A black woman was about to win -- unless they voted.

Christie won, and later apologized for the rough campaign. A gracious Range accepted.

She didn't stay defeated long, though.

When Commissioner Sidney Aronovitz unexpectedly stepped down, then Mayor Robert King High appointed Range to fill his seat in 1966.

She decided a year later to try to win the seat on her own.

A reporter asked her, ``Mrs. Range have you got butterflies in your stomach?''

''Oh, it's gone beyond that,'' she said, ``By now, I've got bats in my belfry.''

But she easily won a term of her own the next year: Both whites and blacks voted for her in droves.

During her five years on the commission, she focused on getting a gun control ordinance passed, although it was not as tough as she had hoped. She also fought for more playgrounds and more regular garbage pickups. Some poor neighborhoods had garbage stinking in the streets for weeks before trucks came around, she said.

In 1971, Range became part of the state's history when then-Gov. Reubin Askew appointed her director of the Florida Department of Community Affairs. It was the highest position in state government ever head by a black or a woman.

For two years, Range ran an office with 200 employees and $5.2 million annual budget. She oversaw the state's emergency management office as well as the Office of Migrant Labor and Division of Economic Opportunity.

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter persuaded her to help him by serving on the National Railroad Passenger Corp. -- quite a jump from once cleaning the railroad cars.

In 1989, the Miami Commission voted her to fill a seat vacated by Rosario Kennedy.

In a stirring speech, she promised to serve as a unifying force in a community torn by riots just months earlier.

Her duty, Range said, ``is to serve all of Miami, regardless of race, creed or color.''

The community rewarded her years of hard work with dozens of plaques and awards. Today, there is an Athalie Range Park, an Athalie Range Olympic Swimming Complex.

And, of course, the business she nurtured for so many years, the Range Funeral Home, remains an institution in Liberty City. Though her son Patrick took over operations, she continued to have a hand in the business.

In addition to her sons Patrick and Gary, Range is survived by her daughter, Myrna. Her son, Oscar, preceded her in death.
Published in the Miami Herald on Nov. 14, 2006
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