The Other Family at The Wren’s Nest
Today, we wanted to highlight the African-American people who worked at The Wren’s Nest when the Harris family lived here.
Our primary resource for information about them were the letters preserved in Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law’s biography of him, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. In that biography, she says:
“I mention the servants thus specifically because they played their part in the family life with a certain vividness, and became attached to the fortunes of the family in a way which is rare nowadays; also because they figure in many of the character sketches and are frequently mentioned by name in father’s letters.”
However, as is the case for most African-American domestic laborers during this time period, the information about the workers at the Nest is spotty at best. The references in Harris’s letters are mostly offhand recounting of the happenings around the home and frequently are a strange mix of familiarity and distance; distinct depictions of individuals and propagations of common stereotypes of the time.
Harris’s letters are only partial portraits of the Henderson Family. However, they play a crucial role in understanding the day-to-day life at The Wren’s Nest.
Here is what we know:
Chloe Henderson was a domestic worker at The Wren’s Nest, traveling approximately two to three miles twice a day from her home near the Philadelphia Baptist Church in the Cascade Road neighborhood. She was the mother of 12 children and her children often came with her to The Wren’s Nest, working around the house or in the yard. In her biography, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, Julia Collier Harris (Harris’s daughter-in-law), described Chloe as having a “very religious” “old soul” with an “unctuous humor, vivid speech and downright ways.” There are two known photographs of Chloe, most likely because it is believed she was an inspiration for one of Harris’s other famous characters, Aunt Minervy Ann.
Mattie Henderson was Chloe and Mandy Henderson’s sister. Like Chloe, she also worked for the Harris family. She was a nurse for them. Mattie left the Nest sometime before April 25, 1896.
Mandy Henderson was Mattie and Chloe’s sister and the primary cook at The Wren’s Nest. Of the three Henderson sisters, she is mentioned the least often. Celie (see below) replaced her as cook by 1890.
Rufus Henderson was also a domestic worker at The Wren’s Nest. He cared for the animals on the farm, including the chickens, the goats, and the donkey. Our research leads up to believe he was related to Chloe, however, it is unclear exactly what the familial relationship was. Rufus’s relationship with the Harris family seems to have been the most contentious as he left the Nest in January 1899 after a “dispute” with Mrs. Harris.
Lizzie Henderson was likely one of Chloe’s daughters, but it is never explicitly stated. She frequently worked alongside Chloe, cooking in the kitchen and/or cleaning the house.
Ed Henderson is mentioned only once in Harris’s letters (April 25, 1896) and is described as part of Chloe’s family. He was likely one of her sons.
Johnson Henderson was likely one of Chloe’s sons. He also worked at The Wren’s Nest.
John is only mentioned once in Harris’s letters. He worked alongside Chloe, Johnson, Lizzie, Rufus, Banks, and Caroline during the spring cleaning at the Nest in April 1898.
Banks was the long-time gardener at The Wren’s Nest. He was married, we think to Caroline, and had a family although no children or other family members are ever mentioned by name.
Caroline was likely Banks’s wife. She is also only mentioned once in Harris’s letters when she worked during the spring cleaning at the Nest in April 1898.
Celie cooked for the Harris family after 1890. In her biography, Julia Collier Harris describes as “very pious” and tells how she named one of her children “Ananias” after the prophet.
As we continue to research the diverse community that was the West End in at the turn of the century, we hope to uncover more about the Henderson Family and other African American families that lived and worked around The Wren’s Nest neighborhood and whose lives and stories are vital to understanding a well-rounded and comprehensive history of our historic site.