Respectfully Yours, Gainer Atkins
Historian Kidada Williams studies lynching. For years, she read accounts of lynching in newspapers and public documents. But how she thought about lynching victims changed when she discovered letters written by a man named Gainer Atkins. Atkins wrote the NAACP seeking justice for his son, Charlie, who was murdered by a mob in Davisboro, Georgia.
Read some of the correspondence between Gainer Atkins and Walter White (provided by Kidada Williams).
Speaker 1: Major funding for Back Story is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Robert and Joseph Cornell Memorial Foundation.
Speaker 2: From Virginia Humanities, this is Back Story.
Nathan Connelly: Welcome to Back Story. I’m [Nathan Connelly 00:00:24].
If you’re new to the show, each week, my colleagues [Brian Balogh 00:00:27], [Ed Ayers 00:00:28], [Joanne Freeman 00:00:29] and I explore the history behind the headlines.
Now, you may have heard our Back Story prize show a few weeks ago where we awarded the first ever Back Story Prize for public history to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. It opened in 2018, and is dedicated to the thousands of African-Americans who were lynched between 1877 and 1950.
The historian [Kidada Williams 00:00:53] studies racial violence targeting African-Americans, including the wave of lynching that began in the aftermath of the Civil War. Over the course of her research, she came across many accounts of lynchings. What is striking about lynching is that these weren’t secret crimes. Often, accounts of lynching would be published not only in local papers but in national outlets, like the New York Times. And while these accounts can give details of what happened the day of the lynching, they’re not usually sympathetic to the victim.
Speaker 4: Davisboro, Georgia, May 18th. Charles Atkins, a negro, 15 years old, one of four taken into custody today in connection with the killing of Mrs. Elizabeth [Kitchens 00:01:34], 20 years old, was burned at the stake tonight. The lynching occurred at the scene of the murder and followed an alleged confession from the 15 year old prisoner. He was tortured over a slow fire for 15 minutes, and then, shrieking with pain, was questioned concerning his accomplices.
Members of the mob, comprising nearly 2000 people, then raised the body again, fastened it to a pine tree with trace chains, and relighted the fire. More than 200 shots were fired into the charred body following the boy’s death.
Speaker 5: My dear Mr. White,
This is to acknowledge and to say that I received your very much appreciated letter. I wish to say here the purpose for my writing you was …
Gainer Atkins: … I am looking around for a good lawyer to bring suit against the state of Georgia for the lynching of my son at the age of 13 years old in the year 1922, 18th day of May, and I’m sending to your for information. The fact, the crowd tied a rope around my neck, and also tied me to a stump, and beat my wife almost to death. She has not been well from that time, and they kept me in jail for 21 months, and my wife in jail for seven months. I am now looking forward to bringing the matter to the state court just as soon as possible, or as soon as I can get some good lawyer to take the case up.
I’m getting old and miss the support of my family, and feel that the state should help me to bury this burden.
Thanking you for what you has done for me, and for what you are going to do. I wish to have a favorable answer soon.
Respectfully yours, Gainer Atkins
Kidada Williams: When African-Americans wrote the Department of Justice, or when they wrote the President of the United States, they often got a form letter back saying this is an issue that should be taken up with your state government. What’s curious that a number of African-Americans get that form letter, and they actually write back and say “I went to my state government first and they did nothing.”
You can also imagine him potentially writing to the local newspapers, but that would be less likely to occur because newspapers, especially the local ones where lynchings occurred, assume the guilt of the person who’s been lynched, and don’t really press down on the fact that, even if they had committed the crime, that they were still entitled to due process and equal protection under the law. They take the story that the mob crafts to justify the killings, and so if he writes out, that could be seen as a direct act of defiance, and there’s nothing to stop the newspaper from publishing the letter, including his address where he is, and putting a bullseye on his back.
The NAACP has, up to this point, positioned itself as an ally. They are going to investigate lynchings themselves. They are trying to get the family story out about the killings, so he’s writing to the NAACP because he’s hoping that they can help him get justice for himself and for his son.
Gainer Atkins: July 16th, 1926. 209 Taylor Street, Camden, New Jersey.
Dear sirs, I wrote you some time ago concerning what happened to me. Now, I will tell you the facts in this case to the very best of my knowledge.
May 1922 in Washington County, state of Georgia, my boy was lynched for killing a white woman that was carrying US Mail to Davisboro, Georgia. My boy was 13 years old at the time. His name was Charlie Atkins. He was lynched without any investigation by the people of Washington and Johnson Counties. And myself and my wife was beat near to death because it was said that my boy did the killing, and it was said shortly after this happened that a white man killed the woman and gave my boy her auto to make it appear that my boy did the killing since my boy knew no better than to let this man give him this auto.
Now, this is all for this time. Please let me hear from you by return mail as I would very much like to hear from you as quick as possible.
Yours truly, Gainer Atkins.
Kidada Williams: Both of the letters are written long hand. The handwriting is actually very neat, probably doesn’t have the fine literacy skills that some of our listeners might enjoy today, but even without that, you still get a sense of who he was as a person. And I can imagine him as a grieving father who’s been beaten, who’s been imprisoned, who has left his home community in order to be safe trying to do something, trying to have meaning in his life by giving a degree of justice for himself and his son. And so that, I feel on the page when I interact with the letter.
On July 26th, 1926, Walter White, Assistant Secretary from the NAACP, wrote Gainer Atkins back.
“My dear Mr. Atkins, I have your letter of the 16th relative to the lynching of your son. I am taking the matter up with well-informed people in Georgia. I will keep you advised of all developments. Yours very truly, Walter White.”
I don’t believe I have his initial response. Gainer’s letters refer to earlier correspondence with Walter White, and receiving information from him. For the letter that I shared with you all, there’s only the little bit that I just read, but what often happens with the first response, it is an expression of condolence, a hope to do what they can to help the family get justice, if that is at all possible.
Now, the challenge is that in the 1920s, the NAACP, they’re running out of fuel. They haven’t been able to get federal anti-lynching legislation passed, and they’re also beginning the slow process of trying to branch out beyond lynching, and take up segregation and education and other places of public accommodations. So part of what they are able to do at this point is to try to apply some pressure to the Governor to try to shame the state into taking some action because that’s their only recourse at this point. I don’t think that people like Gainer Atkins know that that’s the situation, the internal situation of the NAACP at this point. All he knows is that they’ve thrown him a lifeline.
With lynching victims, families, they feel as though they don’t have anything else to lose but to ask, and ask, and ask, and ask, and ask for more, for something to get them closer.
On September 7th, 1926, Gainer Atkins wrote another letter to Walter White.
“I wrote Mr. Alexander concerning the case …”
Gainer Atkins: … as you directed me to do, but I did not get very much satisfaction out of his letter, so I thought I would write to you again to see if you would write to the high sheriff of Washington County, Georgia, and also my lawyer, whose address is Sandersville, Georgia, Washington County. See if you can get any information from them concerning this case.
I’m getting older now, and feels the need of my child, and also the time that these people caused me to lose and suffer, so I want to ask you to do all that you can for me. In good many ways, this burdens my heart, so do all you can for me. The loss of my child is worse than all this.
I want to consult the government concerning the matter that I once asked you to direct me as to just how to get at the matter. My lawyer, Mr. Evans, is the man that cleared myself and my wife of this crime, but my child is gone. He suffered death. My wife suffered for a long time also, and also myself. So answer soon.
Respectfully yours, Gainer Atkins.
Kidada Williams: What stands out in the letter is Gainer Atkins’s palpable grief and agony at losing his boy. It’s obvious that he’s deeply affected by the killing, and his beating, and his imprisonment, and I think that, for me, what the letter does is it connects Charles, or “Charlie,” as his family called him, to community. It says that even though he was isolated from his people at the time of his death, that he was fully human, that he was part of a family that grieved his death long after it occurred. And for me, I think that that’s really important because it shows a very different side of lynching that we don’t get when we look at the newspapers.
And if I can, I’ll also connect that to part of what we’re seeing with the New Legacy Museum down in Montgomery. One of the things that they’ve been able to do is to do something historians haven’t done, which is connect directly to families. And there are publications, and the documentaries that they’re working on, and even in the museum itself, they are bringing the story of lynching victims’ families, lynching victims’ connectedness to communities to light.
It’s letters like Gainer’s that, at least for me, caused the course correction in the nature of my research. The writing that I did on lynching was distant, impersonal. It was discovering Gainer’s letter that changed that because I now saw Charlie. I had to ground them. I had to ground those victims, connect those victims to their people because that’s how they were in life as letters like Gainer’s really reveals to me.
Nathan Connelly: Kidada Williams is a historian at Wayne State University, and author of They Left Great Marks on Me: African-American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.