The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in 2007 and was updated in 2015.
Leah Rawls Atkins has spent her life teaching and writing about American and Alabama history. She was born in Birmingham, growing up in a family compound of four houses that included the homes of her grandparents and great-grandparents near Oak Hill Cemetery. World War II was the formative event of her childhood and kindled her love of history, her country, and her state.
In high school and college, she was a competitive water skier. In 1953 she won both the U.S. Women's Overall National Championship and the Women's Overall World Championship. She was the first woman senior judge of the American Water Ski Association, and the first woman AWSA board member. In 1976, she was the first woman inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Atkins holds three degrees from Auburn University, receiving her doctorate in history in 1974, the first time a Ph.D. in history was awarded at AU. She taught history at Auburn, briefly at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and at Samford University, where in 1984 she became the founding director of the Samford London Study Centre. The next year she became the founding director of the Auburn University Center for the Arts and Humanities (now the Caroline Marshall Draughon Center), which she directed for a decade, bringing university scholars and citizens together to explore the ideas and experiences that inform the human condition, connecting the local to the universal, and providing an opportunity for learning and dialogue.
Atkins is a longtime member, former president, and for 15 years served as secretary of the Alabama Historical Association. She was a founding board member of the Friends of the Alabama Archives, the editor of the Friends' first newsletter, and is on the board of the Alabama Archives and History Foundation.
She has published many articles and books on Alabama history, including a study of the admission of women to Auburn University and the University of Alabama, a history of Birmingham and Jefferson County, and a biography of builder John M. Harbert III. She is also author of a corporate history of Brasfield & Gorrie and, most recently, of a history of Alabama Power Company which won the 2007 James Sulzby Book Award for the best book on Alabama history. She is a co-author of the Pulitizer Prize-nominated Alabama: History of a Deep South State, which also won the Sulzby Award.
She and her husband, George, were married for 60 years and had four children and 13 grandchildren.