Mary Athalie Range became the first African American to serve in the Miami Florida City State Commission and the first woman to head a Florida State Agency.
March is Women’s History Month and we continue to celebrate the trailblazing women who have shaped Miami and helped it become the city we all know and love today. One of them is Mary Athalie Range, the Miami local who rose up to become the first African American to serve the Miami City Commission and the first woman to head a Florida state agency as Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs.
Mary Athalie Range (née Wilkinson) was born in Key West in 1915 to a family of Bahamian immigrants. At the age of 6, her family moved to Miami where Range graduated from all-Black Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown, Miami, at the height of the Great Depression. She went on to marry Oscar Range in 1937 and while jobs were scarce, Range worked clearing out trash from railroad cars during World War II.
Later in 1953, Range helped her husband open a funeral home in Liberty City, which she continued to run after her husband’s death in 1960. Range got her funeral director certification from a school in New England and managed to turn Range Funeral Homes into one of the most successful businesses in Liberty City.
Range began her days of activism during her time as President of the Parent-Teacher Association of Liberty City Elementary. Angry at the poor condition of her children’s school, Range mobilized a group of 125 African American parents to demand improvements for the school which had no permanent buildings, only 12 toilets for girls and boys, no grassy areas and water fountains fed by pipes laid on the ground, which meant the water was always to hot to drink.
Range and the group of parents presented themselves at an all-white school board meeting and she demanded immediate improvements. Much to her surprise, the school board promised to build a new, permanent Liberty City elementary plus additional improvements. It was the first all-Black school to be built in Miami in a generation.
Later in 1965, after Alice Wainright, the first woman to serve in the Miami City Commission, resigned her seat, Athalie Range announced she was running to fill the vacant seat. She obtained the plurality during the primary election but ultimately lost against Irwin Christie, who sent a sound truck through white neighborhoods urging them to vote him or else a Black woman would end up on the seat. Christie later apologized for the way in which he campaigned and Range accepted his apology.
But it wasn’t long until Range would finally get her chance. Just a year later in 1966, Miami Mayor Robert King High appointed her to fill an unexpired seat which had just become vacant. She won the reelection in 1967 and again in 1969.
During her time in the Miami City Commission, Athalie Range fought to better the quality of life in poor and Black neighborhoods. She fought for stricter gun control, more playgrounds and led efforts to improve garbage removal in these neighborhoods which had stinky garbage on the streets for weeks before anyone came to pick it up.
She also fought for the integration of the Miami police force and succeeded in having Robert Ingraham appointed as the first African American motorcycle patrolman in the 305. Ingraham later went on to become Chief of Police and Mayor of Opa-Locka, FL.
In 1971, Florida Governor Reubin Anew appointed Athalie Range as Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs making her the first woman and African American to ever hold such a high position in the state’s government. During her time in office, she ran an office with 200 employees and $5.2 million annual budget and oversaw the state’s emergency management office as well as the Office of Migrant Labor and Division of Economic Opportunity.
In her later years, Range continued her trailblazing career with a 2-year term on the AMTRAK Governing Board — to which she was appointed to by President Carter — and as founding Chairman of the Virginia Key Beach Park Trust, dedicated to preserve the Historic Virginia Key Beach, the only “colored” beach in Dade county.
A trailblazing activist, businesswoman and politician, M. Athalie Range died in 2006 at the age of 70, but till her dying day she continued to serve “all of Miami, regardless of race, creed or color.”‘
[Featured image: Florida Commission on the Status of Women]