“Are you at peace with all of this?” Florida Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby asked her mother in the days before her death.
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah. You don’t see me stressing,” Harriet Singletary Rayner said from her hospital bed at Mease Countryside in Safety Harbor while her daughter recorded the conversation on her phone. “What happened is I’ve really been talking to the Lord, I know not only intellectually but physically that these things that have happened to me cannot be repaired.”
“Mmmhmm,” her daughter responded.
And Rayner knew what awaited her, thanks to a lifetime of faith, fight and family.
From being among the first group of students to integrate the University of South Florida, to building and then defending her career as a social worker, to raising her children in faith and then using that same power to protect and push them, Rayner was ready.
A few days later, on May 18, she died at home due to an ongoing illness. She was 78.
She fought back
“If Kinnie Faison Singletary were still around and went to Washington,” the St. Petersburg Times reported in 1994, “she might well eliminate the national debt. This frugal woman, working for as little as $5 a day cooking, washing and cleaning for other families in Tarpon Springs, was the sole breadwinner for her four children and husband, Harry Singletary Sr., after he was stricken with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1950s. But she kept the family together, fed and clothed them. All four children went on to college and earned master’s degrees and became successful.”
Rayner was one of those children.
“Harriet was very driven,” said former Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris, who grew up with Rayner and her siblings. “Going to college and being successful was just something that was expected of her.”
Rayner married her childhood sweetheart, Earl Rayner, and the two were among the first group of Black students to attend the University of South Florida, daughter Rayner-Goolsby said. Her mother told stories of the Jewish professors who would walk Rayner to class to make sure she arrived safely. Rayner also told the story of the summer in 1968 when, while in classes, she learned that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, then Sen. Robert Kennedy.
Rayner told her daughter: “I had the distinct thought of thinking, it’s over.”
It wasn’t. But she had trials ahead.
Rayner and her husband had two children, Michael and Michele, and she built a career as a social worker.
In 1996, the media reported an investigation into the misappropriation of funds at Directions for Mental Health in Clearwater, where Rayner was the program director. A letter to the editor from a longtime co-worker declared that Rayner was being scapegoated.
Rayner-Goolsby was 12 or 13 at the time, and “I remember that she got counsel from people: ‘Harriet, just let it go.’”
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” her mother said. “I’m not going to let this go.”
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“As a Black woman who was leading that type of organization at that time, she didn’t have the option of just being like, whatever. That is part of who she was. She fought back. "
Rayner filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission. And she continued her career, including with Gift of Life and Lutheran Services.
“I think it just wounded her,” said Nola Aalberts, a fellow social worker and longtime friend. “But she fought it and we talked about what she was going to do from there on, and she had a very successful career after that.”
Step in the gap
Jenny Parnell worked with Rayner for 10 years at Gift of Life, starting when Parnell was in her mid-20s.
“Even when you were in trouble or she was getting on to you, it always came from a position of love,” Parnell said. “She found her life’s work in helping people be better and to do better.”
Rayner taught Parnell to work for inclusion, diversity and equality.
“She always cautioned us that our generation was slacking and we were slipping and that we needed to make sure we still paid attention to the way that folks were treated,” Parnell said. “She always told us to step in the gap.”
Rayner had to do that herself in new ways when her daughter, Rayner-Goolsby, came out as queer at 35.
“Being a woman of deep faith, it’s always interesting when stuff like this comes and visits your house,” she said. “We had to navigate that. There were some bumps.”
But her mom, who was in leadership at Restoring The Remnant church, would not hear anything against her daughter.
“While she was trying to navigate and understand a life change for me, she was still protective in not allowing anyone else to make me feel less than,” Rayner-Goolsby said.
Michael Rayner, too, felt protected by his mother.
“I’ve been through some things in my life,” said Rayner, who owns a car detailing business. “My mom, she prayed for me. She interceded for me … I’m not a president. I’m not a politician. I’m not an athlete. I’m not a musician. But her prayers and her supplications got me to the point that I need to be.”
On her deathbed, Rayner had some final instructions for her children, and really, for all of us.
Keep standing up for what’s right.
Keep speaking on behalf of other people.
And keep standing on your purpose.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.