Another troubled time
The disturbances in Atlanta and other cities after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police made us think of another time, more than a century ago, when civil unrest came to the steps of the Wren’s Nest.
The Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 was the most notorious outbreak of racial violence in the city’s history. For days, local newspapers ran sensationalistic, unsubstantiated reports about black men assaulting white women. On the evening of Sept. 22 — a Saturday — tensions ignited downtown, where the streets teemed with people in town for the weekend. White mobs attacked black people indiscriminately, pulling them off streetcars, smashing windows, firing guns. The disturbances spread to other parts of the city over the next few days.
Joel Chandler Harris, six years retired from his post as an editorial writer at The Atlanta Constitution, was unaware of the unrest until the sound of gunshots woke him in the predawn hours that Sunday. It was a citizens patrol chasing a black man through West End, according to Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906, a history by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein. One of the shots shattered a window in the Wren’s Nest.
During the disturbances, the Harrises sheltered several African American servants and their family members at the house. Describing the riot in letters that fall, Harris wrote: “Pandemonium turned loose, and it is a wonder that the loss of life was not greater.”
It was bad enough as it was. No one knows exactly how many people were killed during the rioting, but historians estimate that it was anywhere from two dozen to more than 40.
Harris was known as a progressive man for his time. While he tended to romanticize the plantation life he had known as a boy in middle Georgia, he also supported education and fair treatment for blacks. A few months after the riot, he summarized his feelings in a letter to one of his famous fans, Andrew Carnegie, soliciting capital for a magazine he wanted to start with his son Julian. “I am sure that I shall be able to smooth over and soothe, and finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races. At my time of life I have no higher ambition.”
Still, when it came to making sense of the violence that swept through his hometown, Harris reflected an attitude typical of Atlanta’s white leadership. He saw it in terms of class and blamed the disturbances, in one letter, on “the lower element of whites.”
We can only guess what Joel Chandler Harris would think of our current troubles. He would certainly recognize them. And he might be disappointed that our society hasn’t made more progress.