Visiting the Russell Atkins Archives in Atlanta


On 5 March 2015, the remaining archives of Russell which have been found to date, were donated to the Woodruff Library, through the auspices of Emory University. These include four pieces of music that Russell created (two operas, an orchestra piece, and a piano piece) and several books and other artifacts. This terrific collection had been saved by Martin and Adelaide Simon, and Russell and his friends--as well as history-- remain grateful to them for preserving this work. We are also grateful to Kevin Smith and Mark Ickes of PPI Gramphics in Canton, Ohio who made scanners available so that we could make copies of the work for Russell himself to keep and study.  

To date, we cannot find any of the seven boxes of materials which Russell had in his previous apartments. We hope against hope that perhaps one of them can be found.


The Four Friends of Russell (Shaheed, Yaseen, Bob, and I) had been reminiscing with Russell for the past nine months of visits, often about some archive of his work that his friend Caspar Jordan had put together somewhere, but Russell has so many stories and names involving the olden days of the Cleveland poetry scene that the details wash over me. So as I was preparing to visit a sick friend in Atlanta, it took Shaheed to prod me with, "Hey, that's where Russell's archives are. Why don't you check them out?" And he showed me a shiny brochure with pictures of a beautiful new building, the Robert W. Woodruff Library, named after the donor who gave the beverage-fueled money to create this great repository. It is the library for four area universities and the archives for much Black History and culture in the U.S.

I called ahead and made an appointment with one of the archives attendants, Mr. Shabazz, who proved to be an incredibly helpful guide on my visit the following week, beginning with his careful directions on how to thread my way up to the archives past the friendly guard, past the coffee bar, and through the snazzily dressed students studying everywhere. 

Once in the Archives Research Center of the library, Shabazz instructed me in storing my things in the digital lockers except my laptop, paper, and the sharpened "Atlanta Universtiy Center" pencils he gave me, one of which I have kept. If you'd like to see what materials are in the Russell Atkins archives, type Atkins' name in the "Find what you're looking for" box


-then click on "Russell Atkins in archival collection," 
-then  click on "View Finding Aid"

and you will see the list of everything I could see: seven boxes of materials, most containing about 90 folders of documents.  

I only had two hours, and I decided to spend most of it on the box of letters, as Russell is grieving (and agrieved, rightfully so) about the many letters he had saved over the years, only to have them destroyed while he was hospitalized in 2013. There were actually two boxes of letters in the archives. There were many from Langston Hughes, including several postcards. My favorite of all was a handmade Christmas postcard with the holiday message hand-typed and decorated with little green and red pencil doodles and Hughes' gorgeous signature:

There were personal letters from friends with gossipy, newsy stuff that Russell was asked not to repeat and utterly professional letters. There is a whole section for correspondence of friends like Adelaide Simon and  Norman Jordan. I was allowed to have photocopied 10% of the collection, but I took just 12 pages.

One of those is a flyer for A Tribute to Jim Lowell, an anthology to raise money for the Asphodel Book Shop owner who was arrested for possessing and distributing "obscene literature," which was to say, the poetry of d.a. levy, one of the contributers to the anthology, in addition to Russell Atkins (the first name on the list, thanks to alphabetical order), Ferlinghetti, Kent Taylor, Bukowski, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, and many other local people, for whom signing one's name was not easy during those times of Cleveland police prosecution of poets. Ginsberg's name is not on the list, but when he visited Cleveland in the 1980s, we walked around the CWRU area of Euclid together, and he recalled walking the streets in protest over the Levy arrests, the brutality of the police then, like none he had ever seen in his many encounters with police. It struck me in that moment that the Russell Atkins archives are not only the a record of one poet's life and work but also of one city's, since Cleveland is where he spent his whole life.

Another of the more humorous letters reminded me of that, too,  a letter from then- Poets League President, John Gabel, narrating the results of the "Poetry on the Bus" contest, which Atkins had been one of the judges for. It seems that the three judges didn't agree on many of the entries, so Gabel--statistician to the bone--had devised a point-system to arrive at 12 winners, which he painstakingly describes to Atkins, outlining the numerical fairness of the venture. I think I was one of the winners that year, and I don't even want to know.  

And there are letters in the collection from other Cleveland poets, including Chris Franke, Cy Dostal, and Robert McGovern, plus five letters from Randall Dudley, one from CSU President Walter Waetjen about Russell's upcoming honorary doctorate. And there were letters from Russell, too.

Since I didn't have much time left, I made a note on the box of "Writing About" Atkins, including a 1964 Saturday Review article, "Ten from Cleveland" and a 1968  New York Times Literary Supplement article that I plan to look up elsewhere since they are elsewhere, unlike many of the items in the boxes which are nowhere else but these boxes in Atlanta.   

I actually felt tingles, viewing these locally, nationally, literarily, and culturally significant documents myself, but I felt even wilder, happier, the day Bob and I met with Russell two weeks later, and we shared with him the copies and originals of documents we have managed to unearth the past five months and to carry to him that day. When Russell left his apartment for the last time, not knowing it was the last time, in 2013, he was told he would be brought back to get his boxes. He was not, and the boxes were destroyed when he was taken to his current place in the nursing home. He has told us over and over that losing his correspondences and and the honorary doctorate, his typewriter and all his editorial work was devastating to him.

In addition to the archives carefully assembled in Atlanta by his librarian friend Caspar Jordan, Bob and I were aided in the search by

***Cleveland State University Registrar Kevin Neal who helped us replace the honorary degree from C..S.U. and English Department Chair,
***Martin Simon, widower of Adelaide Simon, who preserved brochures, books, clippings, programs and musical scores (including a 200-page opera Russell composed)

***Leonard Trawick, the editor of Russell's 1976 book Here in the, who led us to Martin Simon

***Kevin Prufer, the editor of Russell's most recent book, Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master

***Mutaawaf Shaheed and Yaseen AsSami, who since January have visited Russell regularly, who have helped to keep his spirits up, and who got me to the archives with reminders and encouragement.  

Many thanks, too, to Peter Farranto, who drove me there. The prospect of driving in Atlanta is right at the bottom of my list with driving in Boston, Managua, and Mexico City.


  1. Thanks for your illuminating account, Diane. You, Shaheed, Yaseen, and Bob have been Russell's guardian angels.

  2. 1967-1975 was a hot time for Black Writer's in Cleveland led by Russell Atkins and Norman Jordan. I feel extremely fortunate to have known and been directly influenced by them. Russell was a giant, not only a poet and a playwright but also a composer. His publication Freelance held the door open for many voices new and old. There are not enough accolades that can be written to fully comprehend the light he spread nor those that fed from the well of his genius.