Hannah Atkins, the first black woman elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, died of cancer Thursday in a Maryland hospice, her family reports. She was 86.
Atkins enjoyed a remarkable career both in and out of politics.
Statement From Governor Henry
“We have lost a great public servant and a great Oklahoman. Hannah was a dear personal friend of mine and the Henry family. She served with my father in the Legislature and acted as the chairperson of my first gubernatorial campaign. Hannah Atkins was many things to many people – a civil rights pioneer, an influential state legislator, a dedicated educator and mentor – but more than anything, she was an inspirational leader who worked tirelessly to improve her state and its people. We will miss her greatly, but we will never forget her efforts to make Oklahoma a better place. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Atkins family and Hannah’s many friends and loved ones.”
She was elected to the House from District 97 in 1968 and became the first woman to chair a House committee.Statement From Rep. Anastasia Pittman
Atkins left the House in 1980. She was later hired as assistant director for aging services with the state Department of Human Services.
Republican Governor Henry Bellmon appointed her as Secretary of Social Services, Secretary of Human Resources and Secretary of State.
“Hannah Atkins was the trailblazer who led the way for other black women to serve in the state House,” Pittman, a Democrat representing Oklahoma City, said. “I would not be here if not for her example and it saddens me greatly to hear of her passing. She set the standard for how to represent one’s constituents, how to lead. She also had poise and grace, and was overall a very classy and remarkable woman and leader. A great many people are going to miss her.”
She retired in 1991 as the highest ranking woman in state government.
Atkins grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was the fifth of six children. She was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated from St. Augustine College. She later earned a degree in library science from the University of Chicago.
Atkins and her husband moved to Oklahoma City in 1951. Her husband, Dr. Charles Atkins, was the first black elected to the Oklahoma City Council.
Atkins was known for her political career outside of Oklahoma. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as a delegate to the 35th General Assembly of the United Nations. She served as commissioner to the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization from 1979 to 1982.
Pat McGuigan Remembers Hannah Atkins
CapitolBeatOK's Patrick McGuigan knew Hannah Atkins most of his adult life. For his tribute to her life and accomplishments, read his recollection at www.capitolbeatok.com.
Throughout her life, Atkins was involved with many organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. She served on the national boards of the Women's Education Fund, the Black Child Development Institute and the Joint Center for Political Studies. She was active in the Interfaith Alliance, the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation and the Oklahoma City National Memorial Trust.
She served eight years on the Democratic National Committee.
Atkins was the chairwoman of the Oklahoma Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980 to 1990.
She was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Afro-American Hall of Fame. She was given the regional Humanitarian Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, the National Governors' Association Award for Distinguished Service to State Government, the Leadership Oklahoma Lifetime Achievement Award and the Pathmaker Award from the Oklahoma City/County Historical Society.