Elliott C Roberts, a national advocate for advancing equity and diversity in health care and one of the nation’s leading urban hospital executives, died Jan. 15. He was 90.

Roberts served more than 40 years as a CEO of major urban hospitals, including Detroit General Hospital, Harlem Hospital in New York, Charity Hospital in New Orleans and Cook County Hospital in Chicago. 

He was a path breaker at a time when segregation was still commonplace in U.S. hospitals. When Roberts began his health care career as an assistant administrator at Baltimore’s Provident Hospital in 1953, about 500 hospitals were exclusively owned or operated by African-American doctors who primarily served African-American patients in their communities. Until the 1960s, many hospitals would not admit African-American patients or hire African-American medical staff.

Provident Hospital, founded in 1894, was the second African-American-owned and -operated hospital in the country. The hospital closed in 1986. 

Roberts retired in 1994 as CEO of Charity Hospital/Medical Center at New Orleans, but continued to teach management and health policy for another 20 years at the Louisiana State University Medical School’s Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine.  

He served on the AHA board from 1971 to 1976, chaired the association’s section for metropolitan hospitals in 1992, and served on a number of AHA task forces and committees, including one on health care for the disadvantaged in 1978. In those positions, he played a prominent role in helping to shape AHA policy.

Roberts helped form the National Association of Health Services Executives (NAHSE) in 1968, an organization dedicated to advancing African-American administrators in the health care field.  In 1994, NAHSE joined the AHA and the American College of Healthcare Executives in founding the Institute for Diversity in Health Management – now the AHA-affiliated Institute for Diversity and Health Equity. Roberts served as the first chairman of the Institute, which was created to improve health care opportunities for minorities and develop career-awareness and educational programs for them.     

In 1993, Roberts received the AHA Award of Honor, which recognizes people who have made outstanding contributions to public health and well-being through health service or public policy leadership.

“Throughout a long and illustrious career, Elliott Roberts was a tireless advocate for expanding health care leadership opportunities for ethnic minorities, advancing diversity, inclusion and health equity, and for empowering all health organizations to ensure equitable care for all the people they serve,” said AHA President and CEO Rick Pollack. “He was a source of inspiration, a role model, and a thoughtful and compassionate voice for the mission of hospitals, health systems and health.”  

In a 2012 interview for the AHA’s “Oral History” series, Roberts said that mentoring and his work with the Institute for Diversity might be his most important contribution to health care. 

“Mentoring was a big piece,” he said. “The participation with the Institute for Diversity. When I look around now and see the many youngsters coming up, with so much potential, it is certainly gratifying and satisfying, and to think I had a part in it.”