First black woman elected to Oklahoma House dies

Hannah Atkins, a civil rights leader and former Oklahoma legislator, died of cancer Thursday evening.

FROM STAFF REPORTS Published: June 19, 2010
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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 life
Atkins grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. She was the fifth of six children. She described her family as poor but loving. View/sign the guest book
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Governor's statement
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.”

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