Tribute: M. Athalie Range, Dynamite In A Small Package

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M. Athalie Range shown with the author Pegram

[African American History Month Tribute]

Most people who have lived in South Florida or spent considerable time here over the past decade or longer immediately remember the name M. Athalie Range.

To many of those people, black and Latino alike, it is a name that brings back fond memories of the pint-sized woman whose life made quite an impact upon not only Florida communities throughout those years, but future generations as well.

Mary Athalie Wilkinson was born in 1915 in Key West, Florida, but spent her life in the city that would come to adore her--Miami. She would go on to marry Oscar Range, become a loving mother to four wonderful children and then be forced to raise them as a young widow due to her husband dying, unexpectedly, of a massive heart attack.

Faced with unimaginable decisions upon the death of her beloved husband, Athalie chose to return to school, become a licensed embalmer and funeral director, and take over the funeral home business which her husband had started and struggled to get off of the ground. She would go on to help expand the Range Funeral Homes into becoming one of the most prestigious businesses of its kind (with three locations) across South Florida that continues to this day.

Although "Ma Range" (as she was often called by people throughout the community) became a role model for countless young people facing challenges of their own, and a deeply-respected business owner among the business community, it was what she accomplished in another profession that seemed to match her calling for helping those in need.

Little did Mrs. Range know that she would go on to carve out a historical career, which began with her serving as the local PTA president of her children's school, where she went on to make significant improvements such as advocating for permanent classrooms inside of school buildings instead of overcrowded portable classrooms; better equipped restrooms and water fountains, hot lunches and more.

In fact, a few years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led his civil rights campaign in Montgomery, it was Mrs. Range who first led her own protest by organizing over 150 black residents to fill the auditorium of an all-white school board meeting which brought changes in the school district. From there, she was encouraged to run for public office.

In 1965, Mrs. M. Athalie Range went on to become the first African American and the first woman of color to run for city commission in Miami, Florida. In 1966, she achieved that feat and went on to continue blazing trails. She accomplished a lot as a City Councilmember, and was soon appointed by then-Governor Reubin Askew to be the Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, becoming the first African American and the first woman ever to run a state government agency in Florida. It should be no surprise that she went on to serve as a top advisor to President  Jimmy Carter and several leading politicians for years to follow.

What was so amazing about her was that all of this power came from such a small figure. Although she stood at just 5' 0'' tall (and that was with heels on) and 100 lbs., Mrs. Range was more than just a mentor to myself and others. She had more fight in her for fairness than a Heavyweight boxing champion fighting to keep his title. I witnessed her succeed at things, and heard of others, I had never seen any man accomplish, let alone a woman of color.

For that alone she took on God-like qualities in my eyes. This was a woman who decades earlier, single-handedly, pushed to get the first African American police officer assigned to the motorcycle patrol division. She genuinely cared about people--ALL people. She was a staunch advocate for disadvantaged people, creating equal opportunities for everyone, lived what it meant to be there for people during their darkest times, supported giving people chances to redeem themselves and led by positive example.

She didn't change or bend for anyone regardless of the circumstances or situation. If it was right, she'd let you know it. If it was wrong, she'd tell you that, too.

Politicians at all levels revered her and despite being a tiny woman in stature not one of them today could walk in her footprints. In the simple words of her grandson, Patrick II., "she was, indeed, Mighty Mouse."

Mrs. M. Athalie Range passed away in 2006 at the age of 91.

In the years since her death, one of her greatest inspirations has evolved into a lasting reality. Her last endeavor was her passionate pursuit for the recognition and restoration of historic Virginia Key Beach Park, one of the most beautiful locations in the U.S. and once the only public beach in South Florida open to black people. The majestic little woman who grew to become the Political Matriarch of Florida will forever remain in the hearts and minds of countless people. Proof that larger than life images do come from the smallest seeds.

Santura Pegram is a Contributing Writer and Senior Public Relations Specialist for the TSmith Agency in Miami and Atlanta. He can be reached at santura.pegram@yahoo.com or spegram@tsmithagency.com

Please submit your own African American History Month Tribute to milton@blackstarnews.com for consideration. Remember every day is Black History day 

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