The Underrated Julia Collier Harris

Earlier this summer, we launched the first phase of a new digital educational tool: an interactive version of the Harris family tree. We decided to launch the tool in phases in large part because … well, there are a lot of members of this family! And as I continue to research each family member — diving deep into and old newspapers as well as personal records and stories from living descendants — I’m impressed with their accomplishments and amused by their unique attributes and interests. 

No one has impressed me more than Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris. So, I feel compelled to let everyone know how incredible she was.

Julia Florida Collier was the daughter of Susie and Charles Collier (a one-time Atlanta mayor), born in the city in 1875. After attending boarding school in Boston, Julia graduated from Washington Seminary in Atlanta. In secondary school, she began studying illustration under Henry Sandham, a Canadian painter and illustrator and charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She continued her education at the Cowles Art School and the University of Chicago. 

Unfortunately, her career pursuits were cut short when her mother suddenly became ill and she had to return home to Atlanta to care for her six younger siblings. In 1896, she and Julian Harris — Joel Chandler Harris’s oldest son and a budding journalist — became engaged, but the wedding was postponed after Julia’s mother’s health took a turn for the worse and she died. The two were “quietly married” the following October. Because Julia was still caring for her siblings, Julian moved into her childhood home, assisting his wife in the caretaking of the younger Colliers. 

Julia and Julian were a formidable couple, eventually co-owning a newspaper and sharing a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (more on that later). What I love is that the foundation of their relationship was so sweet. The two were so in love that in his letters, Joel Chandler Harris teasingly nicknamed the two “Lovey” and “Dovey.” In a biography she wrote about her father-in-law, Julia remembered how he, “could not resist teasing us a little on the subject of lover’s raptures, yet it was always done with so much geniality that we had no doubt of his sympathy and understanding.” 

Julia Collier Harris and her younger son Pierre

Julia’s father died in 1900, the beginning of a stretch of tragedies that would affect her throughout her life. Two years later, when they decided the Collier house was too big to maintain, she and Julian moved into a new house down the road from The Wren’s Nest. In addition to the couple, their household consisted of two of Julia’s sisters, one of her brothers, and the couple’s two young sons: Charles and Pierre. Julia later recalled that the two years immediately after they moved in, “were the happiest years of all — tranquil and secure — a golden interlude in life before sorrow took possession of us.”

Between December 1903 and April 1904, Julia and Julian lost both their sons. Their deaths came a mere four months apart. Both children were under five. When writing her father-in-law’s biography nearly fifteen years later, she said, “Even after the lapse of so many years, to recur to such losses is anguish.”

Unsurprisingly, the multiple losses so close together took their toll on Julia. She suffered from bouts of grief and depression, or as Joel Chandler Harris described it, “nervous collapse.” It affected her health so much that she took periodic rest cures in various sanitariums in the years after her children’s deaths. She recovered her health after a few years but still had relapses throughout her life.

One reason I love Julia Collier Harris is that she suffered these devastating losses that could have left her flattened, but she didn’t let them. 

Instead, in 1907, she began her journalism career. She started contributing articles to Uncle Remus Magazine, a publication that Julian and his father started and produced out of The Wren’s Nest. When the magazine folded in 1913, Julian and Julia continued their journalism pursuits. He would move from paper to paper and she would go with him, contributing articles and columns for the same papers, including the New York Herald and the Paris Herald. In fact, Julia was one of only two female reporters to cover the Treaty of Versailles. 

In 1922, the journalism power couple purchased the Columbus Enquirer-Sun in Georgia. And I do mean the couple. Julia was a co-owner, an associate editor, and the vice president of the paper! The newspaper became famous for its editorials (particularly Julia’s) that pushed for Progressive reforms in the South on issues like literacy, racial justice, and evolution (Julia and Julian even covered the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925). It was at this paper that the two won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for the “service which it rendered in its brave and energetic fight against the Ku Klux Klan; against the enactment of a law barring the teaching of evolution; against dishonest and incompetent public officials and for justice to the Negro and against lynching.” 

Julian and Julia Harris, 1950s

Julia was largely responsible for the award because, by his own admission, she was a better writer than her husband and it was her editorials that garnered notice. In accepting the prize, Julian said, “Associated with me in the ownership and editorial management, is my wife Julia Collier Harris. … She is a trained newspaper woman, and as fearless as she is intelligent, unyielding in the face of injustice of any kind, and a constant inspiration.” Again, reaffirming for me that these two were definitely “couple goals.” 

As if all this wasn’t enough, Julia also wrote three books. The first was called The Foundling Prince and was a collection of Romanian folktales. She also wrote two biographies of Joel Chandler Harris (The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris and Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist) that we’re still referencing today (including for this blog post) to find out about the more personal aspects of the author’s life.

Julia retired from journalism in 1936 when another bout of depression was serious enough that her doctor advised her to stop working. However, she continued to meet with, advise, and encourage young writers until she died in 1967. 

She was (rightfully!) inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2019. 

It feels like sacrilege to say, but given all she accomplished in an era when it was still uncommon for women have a career let alone be so career-focused and in spite of repeated personal traumas that caused her to suffer from a poorly understood mental disorder, I think she is actually more impressive than Joel Chandler Harris himself. And in case it isn’t clear from this post, I definitely think we should be talking about her more!

John Lewis and the Wren’s Nest

There’s so much history at the Wren’s Nest that it’s easy to forget some of it. Former Executive Director Sue Gilman reminded us late last week, for instance, that the late John Lewis was once a member of our advisory board. Really?

Lewis, the veteran congressman and hero of the voting rights struggle of the 1960s, will be memorialized this week at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and then laid to rest in Atlanta’s Southview Cemetery. The congressman was a great friend of the arts in his adopted hometown, and we’re happy to say that the Wren’s Nest was indeed one of the organizations that benefitted from his counsel.

Lewis joined the advisory board during a transitional period for the Wren’s Nest. While the house museum had been desegregated by a federal court order in 1968, it remained unwelcoming to African Americans through the 1970s. The institution didn’t really change until a new board intent on opening it up took over in 1983.

The new management recruited board members and advisory members committed to making the Wren’s Nest get with the times, including three notable Black leaders: Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax; the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, the civil rights legend and pastor of the next-door West Hunter Street Baptist Church; and Lewis, then an Atlanta city councilman.

“We knew we needed to open ourselves up to the community,” remembers Madeline Reamy, executive director from 1984 to 1987.

In a 1985 article, United Press International asked Lewis why he was involved in rehabbing the home and
reputation of Joel Chandler Harris, the creator of Uncle Remus. “Whether or not we agree with everything Harris did, said and wrote, he was a historical figure,” he explained. “His house is history. Some people want to destroy the past, or revise it. But I think we should preserve it. We can learn from it.”

Lewis was elected to Congress the following year, and his stature only grew over the coming decades.

Of all the reasons we have to honor the memory of John Lewis, his thoughtful regard for the Wren’s Nest and its complicated legacy is a minor one. But remember it we will. Thank you, Congressman Lewis. We are honored that you are part of our history.

Brer Rabbit Hits the Sauce

It’s high grilling season, and with more of us stuck at home cooking for ourselves and our families, we thought it was a good time to revisit “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living.” That’s the retro recipe booklet put out around 1950 by Brer Rabbit Molasses, a brand that started in New Orleans in 1907, the year before Joel Chandler Harris died. It’s still marketed in parts of the country by the conglomerate B&G Foods.

We posted a recipe for Molasses Ginger Rabbit Cookies in April and were pleased when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution picked it up for their “Community Cooks” feature in the Sunday newspaper. Unfortunately, the booklet does not include a barbecue sauce recipe as such. So we combined the closest thing — a Molasses Sauce for ham on Page 48 — with a Kansas City barbecue sauce recipe I included in my book “Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America.” That recipe derived from one Kansas City barbecue legend Paul Kirk gave me years ago when I was writing about food for the AJC.

Pam and I used this sauce last weekend on smoked chicken quarters. But you can put it on anything, from ribs to smoked tofu. It’s sweet, but as you’ll see in the recipe notes, you can customize it by reducing the sweetness and jacking up the heat and tartness. 

Whatever you do, don’t use this sauce on grilled rabbit. As you may recall, Brer Fox wanted to “bobby cue” Brer Rabbit (as seen here in Floyd Norman’s illustration). While we like that story, we don’t want to encourage that sort of behavior when it comes to our No. 1 bunny and star attraction.

We’re looking at you, Brer Chicken.



Brer Rabbit Molasses BBQ Sauce

2 cups ketchup

¾ cup cider vinegar

⅓ cup molasses

¼ cup brown sugar, tightly packed

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1½ teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

¾ teaspoon ground red pepper

Combine wet ingredients and whisk in dry ingredients, mixing well. Pour into a saucepan and cook over low heat for 15 minutes, stirring often. NOTE: This is a sweet, Kansas City-style sauce with an undertone of spiciness. To make it less sweet, decrease the ketchup and sweeteners and add more vinegar, chili powder and red pepper. But do so in small increments, tasting as you go.

Makes: About 2 cups.

Joel Chandler Harris’s (Printer’s) Devil-ish Origins

Joel Chandler Harris is remembered as a bestselling author in the 19th-century with his popular Uncle Remus books. But Harris’s professional beginnings are much less glamorous and more humble. He got his first job when he was fourteen years old, working for a local Eatonton newspaper called The Countryman as a printer’s devil.

Any chance you found yourself thinking, “Wait… a what? What the heck is a printer’s devil?” 

I know I certainly did the first time I heard the term.

The official definition of a “printer’s devil” is: “a person, typically a young boy, serving at or below the level of apprentice in a printing establishment.” 

Turner Plantation Homestead

Joel Chandler Harris was an apprentice for Joseph Addison Turner. In 1862, Turner decided to produce a newspaper from his home at Turnwold Plantation. (In fact, in a-more-than-semi-autobiographical book Harris wrote called, On the Plantation, he explains that the printing office for The Countryman was established “in an outhouse.”) A young Harris was fortunate enough to come across Turner’s advertisement seeking help for his paper:

“WANTED – An active, intelligent white boy, fourteen or fifteen years of age, is wanted at this office to learn the printing business.” – March 4, 1862, The Countryman

A 19th-century type tray.

As was the typical arrangement for the time, Harris worked for Turner in exchange for clothing and boarding at the Turnwold Plantation for the four plus years he apprenticed there. As a printer’s devil, Harris was responsible for setting and inking the type for the paper on the hand-press, individually placing the letters so they were spaced appropriately for printing. A far more tedious and intense process than typing this blog post on my computer right now and substantially harder than pressing Ctrl + P to have a paper copy for distribution. But Harris quickly learned the trade and eventually even started contributing content to the paper.

However, he wouldn’t be the prankster we love if he didn’t do it somewhat sneakily. He said later in life that:

“While setting type for the ‘Countryman’ I contributed surreptitiously to the columns of that paper, setting my articles from the ‘case’ instead of committing them to paper, thus leaving no evidence of authorship. I supposed that this was a huge joke; but as Mr. Turner read the proof of every line that went into his paper, it is probable that he understood the situation and abetted it.”

Now if you’re like me, you probably thought: “OK, but why the heck was the position called ‘printer’s devil’?”

It appears there’s no real consensus about the origin of the term. Most commonly, it is believed that it refers to the fact that the apprentices would often end up covered in ink while they worked – and when the printing press was first invented, the color black was associated with the devil. 

However, this is by far my least favorite of the theories I encountered in my research.

A popular theory I found is that the term has its origins in printing’s early association with magic. When they first hit the market, the consistency of printed materials in comparison to handwritten ones was seen as so extraordinary, it was considered witchcraft or black magic. Thus, the young boys working on the printing press were little devils, practicing the dark arts.

Titivillus haunting a 13th-century Scribe.

Alternatively, another theory posits that a devil haunted every printing press, ready to invert letters, misspell words, or drop a line or paragraph completely whenever the printer’s back was turned. The devil even has a name: Titivillus. Titivillus’s origins predate the printing press as the “patron demon of scribes,” responsible for errors in their handwritten transcriptions. Basically, he was a 13th-century version of autocorrect in a text message. A less flattering expansion of this theory is that the apprentice’s were called “the printer’s devil” because they were the source of the mistakes.

In some theories, a specific person is called out as the origin of the term. In one instance, it’s the assistant to William Caxton, England’s first printer and book publisher. In another, it’s Gutenberg’s business partner, John Fust, who sold several copies of the printed Bible to Louis XI and his court, but passing them off as handwritten. When people noticed the letters were identical, Fust was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. 

I’m not sure which of these is the true source, but in some ways, I prefer all the stories to a real answer. 

Regardless of the term’s origins, “printer’s devil” will forever be an integral part of Joel Chandler Harris’s origins.

Our storytellers speak

For 35 years now, the Wren’s Nest has presented professional storytellers at the house and at schools and community centers across Georgia. That’s a lot of storytelling! This summer, we’re adding a plot twist: We’ve asked our regular storytellers to tell us about their stories and to talk about their craft.

Starting this week and continuing every other week into August, we’ll post interview videos with our storytellers on our YouTube channel and website. Chetter Galloway is first up on Wednesday, followed by Gwendolyn J. Napier on July 22, Esther Culver on August 5, and Akbar Imhotep on August 19. They’ll talk about how they first discovered storytelling, how they came to the Wren’s Nest, how they frame Uncle Remus stories for modern audiences, what other kinds of folklore they mix in to their performances, and interesting experiences they’ve had as they present the adventures of Brer Rabbit and other critters.

You’ll hear some surprises. Akbar Imhotep, who has been telling stories at the Nest since the fall of 1985, confided that he didn’t know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he began. After several months of telling African folklore tales, it was gently suggested to him that perhaps he should learn a few Uncle Remus stories. He’s been performing them ever since. You’ll also hear Chetter Galloway talk about the one story by Joel Chandler Harris that he avoids telling because it’s too easy to misinterpret. Can you guess which one?

The Wren’s Nest has contracted with numerous storytellers over the past four decades. It has been one of the best things we do to make our legacy come to life and connect this institution with the tales that made the Joel Chandler Harris home a museum in the first place. We are so pleased that you can finally hear some of these talented artists talk about their lives and work. It was fun doing these interviews.
We hope you’ll enjoy listening to them.


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