Hannah Atkins, the first black woman elected to the state House of Representatives, died of cancer Thursday evening in a Maryland hospice. She was 86. Atkins will be buried in Oklahoma City, a relative said. Services are pending. "Every woman in the world would like to have contributed as much to the world as Hannah did to Oklahoma City,” her daughter-in-law, Gayle Perkins Atkins, said. In a written statement, Gov. Brad Henry remembered Atkins as a friend and "inspirational leader who worked tirelessly to improve her state and its people.” Atkins was working on her doctorate at the University of Oklahoma in 1968 when she heard about the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She said she evaluated her career path and, urged by her friends, she decided to run for the vacant House District 97 seat. She ran a "door-to-door, grassroots, youth-oriented campaign,” said Bruce Fisher of the Oklahoma Historical Society. Vicki Miles-LaGrange, now a U.S. district judge, helped organize the youth effort. "We called ourselves 'Hannah's Helpers,'” she said. "We wore those ugly 1960s colors — neon green with blue fringes on our dresses. We knocked on doors. She taught us that we couldn't be silly and had to take it seriously. We had to be able to answer people's questions about her campaign.” When Atkins won the election, Fisher said: "She did something no other African-American woman had dared to do. ... It kind of opened the floodgates for African-American women to enter the realm of politics.” State Rep. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, called Atkins a trailblazer. "I would not be here if not for her example, and it saddens me greatly to hear of her passing,” Pittman said. "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.” Some of her colleagues lacked the same class. A fellow legislator handed her a picture of men wearing the white hoods of the Ku Klux Klan. He pointed to one man and said it was him. But despite the obstacles she faced, Atkins and her colleagues — known as "The Flaming Moderates” — accomplished quite a bit. She was known for calmly challenging political powerhouses, such as the state welfare director. She became the first woman to serve as chairman of a House committee. One piece of legislation was left undone, though, despite Atkins' efforts. She pushed for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, but it never passed. Atkins left the House in 1980. She later was hired as assistant director for aging services with the state Department of Human Services. Under Gov. Henry Bellmon, Atkins served as state Secretary of Social Services, Secretary of Human Resources and Secretary of State. She retired in 1991 as the highest-ranking woman in state government. "There weren't many causes that I can think about growing up here in Oklahoma City that she wasn't a part of in some way,” Miles-LaGrange said. "It just seems like everything good and decent that would truly help people, she was a part of.”
Family lifeAtkins grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was the fifth of six children. She described her family as poor but loving. Her parents pushed her and her siblings to go to college. Her father was especially encouraging to his daughters to earn their degrees. Atkins described her family as religious and community-focused. Her family was made up of teachers and ministers. Her uncle was the first black person elected to the Michigan Legislature. Atkins 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, Charles Atkins, moved to Oklahoma City in 1951. Charles Atkins worked as a doctor and she worked as a librarian at the State Library. They had three children. "She was a wonderful person and a great mother,” Perkins Atkins said. "Oh, I don't know how she did it all.” Dr. Charles Atkins became the first black member of the Oklahoma City Council. He died in 1988. Hannah Atkins went on to earn her master's degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma.
After politicsAtkins was known for her political career outside of Oklahoma. "She was as respected as she could be and as nice as you can be, and she could also be as tough as nails,” Fisher said. 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. Atkins spent many years teaching at colleges throughout the state. She spent time in classrooms at OU, Oklahoma State University and the University of Central Oklahoma. At OSU, a professorship in her name was created to attract minority students to political studies. 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. Atkins 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. "She was a true activist with a passion for learning and a passion for social justice,” Miles-LaGrange said. Atkins was given an honorary doctorate from OU. She was pursuing a doctorate when she ran for office for the first time.
SurvivorsPerkins Atkins said the family is struggling with the loss. "They were all so close,” she said. "She was a real force in everybody's life, but she was a really big force in the family.” She is survived by sons Edmund Atkins of Washington, D.C.; and Charles N. Atkins Jr. of New York; and daughter Valerie Alexander, of Delaware, Md.; two daughters-in-law; two grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and three siblings.
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Gov. Brad Henry's full statement on the death of Hannah Atkins: "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.”