Mary Athalie Wilkinson was born in Key West, Florida on November 7, 1915. Her family left “the Keys” when she was very young and relocated to Miami, Florida. Athalie graduated from the historical Booker T. Washington High School in 1939 and later attended the New England Institute of Anatomy and Embalming to become a licensed funeral director. Athalie went on to marry Oscar Lee Range who was originally from Valdosta, Georgia. Oscar Range became a licensed funeral director, and together they opened their family funeral home in 1953. After her husband’s death seven years later, Mrs. Athalie Range successfully continued the business which had three locations.
Range’s political involvement started in 1948, with the PTA of her children’s segregated school, Liberty City Elementary. It is well documented that during this time conditions at the school were deplorable with enrollment of 1200 students, no permanent building, and 12 toilets for boys and 12 for girls. In addition, there was no lunchroom and they only had outside drinking fountains, which were fed by uncovered water pipes. Range organized 125 parents and residents to attend the regular school board meeting. The school board was shocked at this grand mobilizing effort of Negroes within the community.
After several attempts to stall the meeting, the superintendent finally called the meeting to order stating, “in order to get our meeting moving, we have a large group of Negroes here so we are going to hear what they have to say. If there is a spokesman among you, you may come up”. Range eloquently spoke for fifteen minutes about their concerns. As a result of demanding change for young black children, arrangements were made to transport food from Miami Jackson High, which was an all-white school at the time, to the elementary school. Range and the other parents were promised a new school building complete with a cafeteria of its own. The school board kept their commitment to construct a new school.
Calls for city hall were next on the political list during the 1960’s. In the 1964 primary race for the commission seat, Range outdistanced her closest opponent by 500 votes, but was faced with a runoff election against a white candidate—Irving Christie. She lost the run-off election by 1,000 votes. Range was very critical of the tactics Christie used to win. He utilized a big sound truck going around the white sections of town blasting “Unless you get out and vote in this election, you may have a Negro deciding your fate on the commission.” After her loss, there was much disappointment within the community.
Robert King High was Mayor of Miami at this time and had aspirations to become the state’s next governor. He strategized to increase his popularity within the black community. After Range’s failed election attempt, High encouraged one city commissioner to relinquish his seat so that she could be appointed to the position. In 1965, Range became the first black to serve on the Miami City Commission. Subsequently she won the seat in the following election.
Range’s style of in-your-face activism followed her to city hall. In the late 1960’s, trash pick-up within the black community did not occur very often. In a 1967 commission meeting, Range reported that there were some apartment buildings in Liberty City where garbage was piled up for two weeks. She introduced an ordinance mandating twice-weekly garbage collections all over the city of Miami. The vote on the proposition was postponed twice. Range advised supporters to bring garbage to the next commission meeting and leave on the commissioner’s desk. Blacks with bags of garbage packed the meeting and the ordinance was quickly passed.
Range left the commission in 1972 and Governor Reubin Askew later appointed her to the state cabinet as Secretary of Community Affairs where she served until 1973. After leaving her cabinet post, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the national AMTRAK board for a two year term. Range was one of the first blacks to support Jimmy Carter’s campaign for the presidency in the late 1970’s. She continued to run the funeral home with her family and remain active in Miami politics. Range’s dominance in the political scene was due to her commitment, civil activism, and demand of social justice.
Range is a true pioneer of civil rights and role model to all women. We celebrate her life and legacy during Women’s History Month.
Source: Dunn, Marvin. Black Miami in the Twentieth Century 1997.