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Hannah Atkins

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Hannah Diggs AtkinsNovember 1, 1923 - June 17, 2010Hannah Diggs Atkins, the first African American woman elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on November 1, 1923 to the late James T. Diggs, Sr. and Mabel Kennedy Diggs. Mrs. Atkins attended Winston-Salem Public Schools, graduating as Valedictorian from Atkins High School at age 15. She then earned her undergraduate degree in Biology and French as an honors student in 1943 from Saint Augustine's College, Raleigh, North Carolina, where John Hope Franklin was her advisor and mentor. At Saint Augustine's she met her future husband, the late Dr. Charles N. Atkins, Sr. Mrs. Atkins furthered her education at the University of Chicago where she completed a graduate degree in library science in 1949. She earned a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Oklahoma in 1989, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Mrs. Atkins was also selected to attend the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government in 1987. Mrs. Atkins was married in 1943 in Raleigh, North Carolina. She accompanied her husband Charles and family to Oklahoma City in 1951 when he became a resident physician at the former Edwards Hospital. She soon became active in civic affairs while working as a librarian for the Oklahoma County Library System and as a reference and law librarian for the State of Oklahoma. Immediately after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mrs. Atkins decided to enter politics upon being urged to by several neighbors, friends and colleagues. She ran a campaign featuring young enthusiastic supporters known as "Hannah's Helpers," among many other volunteers. She made history when she was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives, District 97, in 1968. While in the House, she served as chairwoman of the Public and Mental Health Committee, and was the first woman to chair a committee in the Oklahoma House. As chairwoman, she conducted several studies and investigations leading to a revamping of the Oklahoma Mental Health System. She also served on the Appropriations and Budget, the Higher Education, and the Public Utilities Regulation Committees. She served two terms as chair of the Oklahoma County House delegation and majority caucus secretary. Mrs. Atkins was re-elected five times, serving twelve years. Mrs. Atkins authored many important bills throughout her career in the House. Among them were bills improving commitment laws and in-patient care in the State's mental health system, revising laws related to the criminally insane, proposing to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, requiring immunizations for school age children, improving adult protective services, mandating elections of school boards by wards, and expanding open meetings laws. President Jimmy Carter appointed Mrs. Atkins to serve as U.S. Public Delegate to the General Assembly of the 35th Session of the United Nations in 1980. She was a member of the Third Committee of the United Nations responsible for social and economic issues. She later served as a consultant to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and visiting professor in Political Science at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. Governor Henry L. Bellmon selected Mrs. Atkins to be Assistant Director, Department of Human Services and head of the Division of Aging in 1983. In January 1987, Governor Bellmon appointed her to the position of Cabinet Secretary of Social Services, and then in September 1987 to the additional position of Secretary of State. In addition to the traditional Secretary of State duties, she had oversight over the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Corrections, the Pardon and Parole Board and their other related boards, councils and committees. Mrs. Atkins was the highest ranking woman executive in Oklahoma State government until her retirement in January 1991. Mrs. Atkins was active in numerous of organizations. She was a board member of Trans-Africa, the Joint Center for Political Studies and the American Civil Liberties Union. She was the president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Society of Public Administration, a board member of the National Women's Education Fund, Women Executives in State Government and the National Black Child Development Institute. For ten years she was chairwoman of the Oklahoma Advisory committee on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She also served on the Oklahoma Chapter of People to People, was secretary of the Oklahoma Sister Cities organization and served on the Executive Committee of the Oklahoma Chapter of UN/USA. Mrs. Atkins served as a member of the Democratic National Committee for eight years. She was also an active member of the NAACP, Urban League and other civic and religious organizations. Mrs. Atkins was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Links Inc., and was a licensed lay reader at the Church of the Redeemer (Episcopal). She was the founder and president-emerita of the Sanamu African Art Gallery in the Kirkpatrick Center in Oklahoma City. Mrs. Atkins was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Afro-American Hall of Fame in 1983 and was also later inducted into the Oklahoma Women's Hall of Fame. She received 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. Mrs. Atkins received Honorary Doctorates from Benedict College, Columbia, South Carolina, the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University. An endowed chair was established in her honor at Oklahoma State University in 1992, the Hannah D. Atkins Professorship for Political Science and Government Information. Her governmental and personal papers are housed at the Hannah Diggs Atkins Collection at Oklahoma State University and at the Oklahoma Historical Society. After the passing of her late husband Dr. Charles N. Atkins, Sr., Mrs. Atkins was married for several years to the late Everett P. O'Neal, a retired businessman of Kansas City, Missouri. Mrs. Atkins is survived by sons Edmund E. Atkins, Washington, D.C., and Charles N. Atkins, Jr., New York City; daughter Valerie Atkins Alexander, Wilmington, Delaware; brother Dr. Edward O. Diggs, Sr., Washington, D.C.; sisters, Jessie Diggs Kearney and Gloria Diggs Banks, Winston-Salem, NC; grandsons Damien Atkins, Washington D.C. and Anand Alexander, Wilmington, Delaware; daughters-in-law, Vera Clayton Atkins and Gayle Perkins Atkins; granddaughter-in-law Kalsoom Malik Atkins and great-granddaughter Neena Malik Atkins, Washington, D.C.; and a host of nieces, nephews and cousins. Services for Mrs. Atkins will begin Thursday, June 24, from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. at the State Capital Rotunda Room and she will lie in state at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Funeral service will be 11:00 a.m., Friday, June 25, at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, 127 NW 7 St. Services conducted by: Pollard Funeral Homes, Inc. 405-769-6719
Published in The Oklahoman on June 24, 2010
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