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5 Black Women Who Made History FOR FLORIDA'S ENVIRONMENT

By Hannah O. Brown

Photos: State Archives of FloridA

As we turn the spotlight on the contributions of black women to Florida's environment, we thought it critical to look into the past and highlight some of the forerunners in our state's environmental history. Many of the women described below were the ultimate taskmasters, advocating for education reform, economic opportunity and basic civil rights for black communities. But somehow, they managed to include an environmental bent into their advocacy work, whether it was through establishing a public park for black residents of Jacksonville or helping to rebuild black communities after Hurricane Andrew plowed through the state. We invite you to explore a side of Florida's environmental history that is too oft forgotten, the story of women who were ahead of their time in more than one respect.

Eartha Mary Magdalene White

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Eartha White was a well-known and influential force in Florida throughout the early 1900s. White was a philanthropist who spearheaded many different community efforts, a successful entrepreneur and community leader for organizations like the National Negro Business League and the Jacksonville Business League.

It is believed that White became a millionaire, profiting from the fruits of her many businesses, which include a dry goods store, an employment and housecleaning organization, a taxi company, and a steam laundry.

But White donated a substantial amount of her profits to philanthropic causes. She created Oakland Park, the first public park in Jacksonville for the black community, in addition to an orphanage for African American children, a home for single mothers and a nursery for children of working mothers. She also established the Clara White Mission with her mother, a project focused on feeding homeless and hungry residents of Jacksonville.

Eartha Mary Magdalene White stands with Congressman Charles E. Bennett on her 89th birthday.

White was acknowledged for her work by a flood of accolades, including an honorary law degree from Edward Waters College, an honorary doctorate of humanities from Florida Memorial Institute, and the Booker T. Washington Symbol of Service Award from the National Negro Business League.

White lived until the age of 97. She died of heart failure on January 18, 1974 and was inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame in 1986.

Zora NealE Hurston

As a writer, anthropologist and notable figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston was an invaluable documentarian of rural, black culture in rural Florida.

Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama, in 1891, and moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. After her mother died when Hurston was 13, her life became more difficult. She joined a traveling theatrical company at age 16, then attended Howard University for several years and studied under anthropologist Franz Boas at Barnard College. She went on to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology at Columbia University.

Gabriel Brown plays guitar as Rochelle French and Zora Neale Hurston listen in Eatonville, Florida.

Hurston is known for her field work documenting black culture and folklore in the South. She worked with the Federal Writer’s Project through the Works Progress Administration to capture stories, songs, traditions and historical accounts from rural black communities across Florida. One essay titled “Turpentine” describes the happenings at a turpentine camp in the pine forests of Cross City.

She is also a renowned author, writing multiple novels and short stories throughout her life. Her most famous work is the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” tells the story of a fair-skinned, fiercely independent woman named Janie Crawford and her evolving sense of self as she navigates through the trials of her own life.

Hurston died in Fort Pierce in 1960 at the age of 69. She was deemed “one of the greatest writers of our time” by author Toni Morrison.

Aunt Aggie Jones

A garden of bones and skulls arranged around wild azaleas, oleander and crepe myrtle—this is where Aunt Aggie Jones spent many years of her life.

Jones and her husband Jenkins collected bones from a variety of animals, dried the bones in the sun and arranged them into structures around the gardens. The bones formed archways and bordered flower beds. Skulls sat perched atop archways, creating a surrealistic garden landscape.

Jones was born into slavery in Georgia and traveled to Columbia County as a slave in 1844. After the Civil War, she was emancipated and purchased property from an employer. Here she began assembling her bone garden, piece by piece.

Jones’s garden in Lake City became a popular tourist attraction in the early 20th century, with many visitors inscribing their names and addresses on the bone structures. Jones also sold plants and fresh vegetables at the site, and curated a natural history museum in a building nearby that featured preserved snakes and alligators.

Jones died in 1918. The land where the garden once stood is now occupied by a high school.

Mary Athalie Range

Mary Athalie Range’s life as a community organizer, politician and activist in Florida was defined by firsts.

She was the first black woman to run for city commissioner in Miami. As the Secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, she was first woman ever to head a state agency in Florida. And she was one of the first black people in Florida to back Jimmy Carter’s run for the presidency, introducing many black communities in Florida to Carter before he announced his candidacy.

Born in Key West in 1915, Range was the granddaughter of Bahamian immigrants. She and her husband Oscar ran the Range Funeral Home together in Liberty City, where they had three children. When her husband died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1960, Range became certified as funeral director and operated the business on her own.

Florida's 37th Governor Reubin Askew walks with Range in Tallahassee, Florida. Range was named Secretary of the State Department of Community Affairs by Governor-Elect Askew. She was the first African-American woman to head a major agency for the state in modern times.

Range was a pioneer for the education system in Florida. While serving as the president of the Parent Teacher Association for Liberty City Elementary, she led 125 black parents to the school board with a list of demands for school improvements. This led to the construction of a new building—the first school built for black children in 21 years.

Range was also involved in the preservation of coastal lands. She helped to establish Virginia Key Beach Park, which was the only public beach in Dade County open to the black community at the time. She died while in Miami in 2006 at the age of 91.

Carrie Meek

When Hurricane Andrew tore through Florida in August 1992, Congresswoman Carrie Meek fought for the people of her district. Meek represented communities in the Miami suburbs of Dade County, which includes the rural town of Homestead.

Meek was elected to the Florida Congress in 1992. Throughout her tenure, she focused on the economic and immigration issues of her district. She was known for her congenial style of communicating and her ambitious agenda in office, which she delivered with a kind demeanor and a soft Southern accent.

Meek’s grandmother was a slave in Georgia. Her parents were sharecroppers in the early years of their marriage, until her father later worked as a caretaker and her mother was a laundress and owner of a local boarding house.

Meek was the youngest of 12 children. She played sports as a young college student while studying biology and physical education at Florida A&M University. She went on to earn a master’s in public health from the University of Michigan.

She spent many years working in education, teaching at Bethune Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, and Florida A&M University. She is now 91 years old.

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Hannah Brown
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(State Archives of Florida)

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