Over forty years ago, a series of murders spread fear through Atlanta.
Portraits of the victims, mostly young Black males, are on display in the domestic terminal atrium of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The exhibit is titled ‘The Atlanta Children’s Memorial Portraits: In Memoriam of the Victims of the Atlanta Child Murders’. Each oil on canvas portrait is of a child with a combination blue sky and white cloud background.
Artist Dwayne Mitchell was chosen from a competition of over a hundred participants to create over 30 portraits for the victims of the Atlanta Child Murders.
“In painting these 30 children, one can only imagine the deep loss and sadness of the parents and families that have gone through this, and to not have all of the answers surrounding this horrible event is unthinkable, and as I look into the eyes of all 30 of these innocent children, I cannot help to feel their pain,” Mitchell wrote in his artist statement. “As artists we do our best to tell their story, and try to show you what our subject is going through or feeling. As you look at these paintings, you will not see any wrong doing or malice, you will only see joy, fun and love for their families. In one word: ‘Innocence.’”
The Atlanta Child Murders were a set of over 30 murders committed between 1979 and 1981. In 1982, Wayne Williams was convicted of the deaths of two adults, who were believed to be among the young adults and children killed by one person. He is currently serving two life sentences at the Hancock State Prison in Hancock County, Georgia.
After Williams’ conviction, the rest of the Atlanta Child Murder cases were closed. Williams received the blame for the murders although he was never formally charged for them. This has led to controversy over who really killed Atlanta’s children.
There has been a dispute over Williams’ conviction. In his community of Atlanta’s Dixie Hills neighborhood, many did not believe that Williams could kill so many people. A 1986 issue of The Atlanta Voice revealed how new evidence linked the Ku Klux Klan to the Atlanta Child Murders. That evidence was withheld from Williams and his attorneys at the time of his trial and could have proven his innocence.
In 2005, Dekalb County Police Chief Louis Graham ordered the reopening of four of the cases credited to Williams. However, authorities in neighboring counties did not make any moves to reopen the cases under their jurisdiction.
Bottoms was an elementary student when the murders began. In a New York Times article, she recounts the intense warnings of not going outside alone during that time.
In 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms led the charge to reopen the Atlanta Child Murders Cases. Bottoms has said to hope that technological advancements and new genetic databases could uncover new information in the reexamination of the evidence.
She issued an administrative order to initiate the Atlanta Children’s Memorial Taskforce. The task force is composed of mayoral appointees from the local community.
The Memoriam exhibit in the airport is a way to remember and honor the victims as the 40-year-old cold cases are reopened. According to Atlanta Journal Constitution, Mitchell’s work was to be displayed during the summer of 2020, yet was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The paintings are available for viewing through Sept. 8.