Ernestine Augusta Ray, Fort Lauderdale historian and educator, dies at 72

Ernestine Augusta Ray, a historian and educator who was active in the Fort Lauderdale community, has died, leaving behind a legacy of community empowerment and youth involvement.

“I always associated my aunt with adventure, vibrancy and limitlessness,” Makeda Crane, Ray’s niece, said.

Ray, who died on May 18, was 72.

A passionate storyteller, Ray shared African American history in her work as the superintendent of the American School System for the U.S. State Department in Ghana and as the longest-serving curator at the Old Dillard Museum in Fort Lauderdale, where she handled multiple exhibitions centered on the cultures and communities that make up the African diaspora.

“She used history, culture and the arts to have children enjoy learning,” Crane said. “She was a creative at heart, but she was also an educator.”

Ray also founded Ancestral Rays and Ancestral Legacies, two cultural and educational organizations in Fort Lauderdale.

“Ernestine was special,” said Patricia West, the former deputy director of human services for Broward County. “She really cared about what was going on here in the community, and we really appreciated having someone like her to help us build the history that goes along with that museum now.”

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on Feb. 13, 1952, Ray was educated in the New York public school system. Despite being diagnosed with a learning disability at an early age, Ray earned a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology, two master’s degrees in adult education, and a doctorate in education  leadership from universities in New York and Africa.

Ernestine Aug.a Ray, a historian and educator who was active in the Fort Lauderdale community, died on May 18, 2024, at the age of 72. (Makeda Crane/Courtesy)
Ernestine Augusta Ray, a historian and educator who was active in the Fort Lauderdale community, died on May 18, 2024, at the age of 72. (Makeda Crane/Courtesy)

For 12 years in the 1980s and 1990s, Ray traveled Africa, studying, teaching and learning.

“She got a plane ticket and said ‘I’m going to Africa,’” Crane said. “She went and she never looked back.”

Bringing awareness of the African diaspora and country to the world, Ray traveled to multiple countries on the continent of Africa, 44 countries globally, and worked in 33. Among her mentors were Nelson Mandela, South African statesman and anti-apartheid activist, and Maya Angelou, the poet and civil rights activist.

“It was almost like she was divinely placed in different situations to meet these really interesting, other dynamic, human beings that she ended up partnering with,” Crane said.

Ray made her way back to South Florida in the mid-1990s to take care of her mother and then stepped into the role as curator of the Old Dillard Museum, formerly known as “the colored school,” where she revolutionized exhibits and changed the museum’s trajectory for the better.

“She was just an effervescent person that had a lot of heart in the things that she did and put a lot of investment into African culture and African American culture,” said Derek Davis, the curator of the Old Dillard Museum who stepped in after Ray.

Before stepping in as curator, Davis worked as the head of exhibits and programs at the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale and collaborated often with Ray at the museum. According to Davis, Ray spearheaded the initiative to bring in outside speakers to inform the local community about exhibits and workshops at the museum.

Although she never had any children of her own, Ray’s work in education empowered many children across the globe.

“Not enough people realize that the cultural arts are a great way to reach children when other methods have failed,” Ray told the Sun Sentinel in 1996.

Ray has received many awards and recognition for her work at the local, national and international levels, including the Cultural Foundation of Broward 2006 Moretti Award for Excellence in Cultural Achievement, the JM Family 2007 15th Annual African American Achievers Recognition, and the Friends of Broward County African American Research Library & Cultural Center fifth anniversary 2007 Award.

Ray always believed that life offers infinite possibilities regardless of one’s surroundings.

“Lift up your head, straighten your back, and walk tall, poised! Be bold, fearless, audacious! Know your worth!” Ray said in an email obtained by Crane. “Stand tall. Be remarkable. Be brilliant!”

A memorial service for Ray is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. June 30, 2024 at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., Fort Lauderdale.

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