Inside the Achieves: Atkinson’s life from Georgia to China

Published 6:16 pm Tuesday, March 26, 2019

By Robin Brown
Archives Assistant at Bradshaw-Chambers Library

Among Virginia Atkinson’s final words were, “I want to go back to China.”

The aged missionary, weakened and ailing, wanted to return to the land and the people who had become hers. For more than 56 years, she served in China.

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Although she never married, her surname changed to “Kyung,” a common Chinese name which means gold. Not having a family of her own, she became “Mother Gold” to three generations of boys and girls that she taught and mentored.

She wished for her ashes to rest in China, but her life began on the other side of world. Born in Talbot County, Georgia in 1861, she was sent to live with cousins in 1869. A lonely eight-year-old girl was welcomed into the home of her first cousin, Lucretia Atkinson Randle and her husband Fountain P. Randle, in Rock Mills, Alabama.

In 1878, she attended LaGrange Female College, affiliated with the Methodist Church. Graduating in 1880, she became a teacher at the school in Rock Mills, where she had been a student only a few years earlier. A call for missionaries published in a Methodist newspaper stirred her heart. In June 1884, Jennie Atkinson was consecrated as a missionary by the Methodist Episcopal Church South. By October she was crossing the Pacific Ocean along with a small contingent of fellow missionaries.

On Nov. 8, 1884, she spent her 23rd birthday sightseeing in Japan. Eager and astute, she learned Chinese by moving her feet to the rhythm of the language. Although her methods were unconventional, she surpassed her peers in her grasp of the language. She began teaching music and calisthenics in the Methodist school that offered free tuition to its students. She encouraged families to send their daughters to school where they could learn a skill and hear the gospel. To that end, she helped establish a women’s industrial school.

Her years in China were not easy. When anti-foreign sentiment erupted into the Boxer Rebellion, 150 missionaries and thousands of Chinese Christians were murdered. Jennie Atkinson and her fellow missionaries survived, staying in China as long as possible before fleeing briefly to Japan. By January 1901, she had returned to China. Ten years after beginning her work, Jennie Atkinson had helped found the Atkinson School for Boys and the Davidson Girls School. She modernized the curriculum and established the first kindergartens.

Writing to Randle family relatives, Jennie Atkinson’s letters from the 1920s and1930s are available for research at Cobb Memorial Archives. A letter dated Nov. 20, 1931 revealed that “Miss Gold” was honored on her seventieth birthday with a grand celebration from her friends and former students. They started a fund to build a home for her in her old age and presented her with a colorful enamel plaque with the words “Better than all the mothers” written in gold.

Although Miss Atkinson admitted that life in China had not been without its hardships, she wrote her relatives that “I love it and would not be willing to change with anybody.”

She remained in China until her health and the political situation forced her to return to the United States. She died on Dec. 11, 1941, unaware of the attack on Pearl Harbor and still longing to return to those who knew her as “Mother Gold.”

To learn more about the life stories of extraordinary women whose memories are preserved at Cobb Memorial Archives, please consider attending a Lunch N Learn on “Local Women in History” at the LaFayette Pilot Library on March 29. Lunch will begin at 12:30 ET and the program at 1 p.m. ET.

To make a reservation, call the LaFayete Library at (334) 864-0012.