Juneteenth Memories of the Other Family at The Wren’s Nest
Today is Juneteenth, an unofficial holiday celebrating emancipation and freedom. President Lincoln signed the Executive Order known as the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, the celebration is held today because it was on this day in 1865 (two and half years after the proclamation) that the news reached Texas, which had been fairly isolated from Union soldiers during the Civil War. Led by Major General Gordon Granger, the soldiers announced the war had ended two months prior and enslaved people were now free.
In honor of this celebration, we want to highlight the African-American people who worked at The Wren’s Nest when the Harris family lived here.
Here is what we know:
Chloe Henderson was a milkmaid 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 to milk the cows. She also helped with cleaning around the house and later cooked from time to time. She was the mother of 12 children, although it is unclear how many of those children survived childbirth. She often took little recovery time after childbirth, returning to work so soon after it always surprised Mrs. Harris. 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 a “character,” a “very religious” “old soul” with an “unctuous humor, vivid speech and downright ways.” We have the most information about Chloe and two known photographs of her, 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. She was a nurse and later a “spiritual healer” for the Harris family. Like Chloe, she also cooked from time to time. Mattie left the Nest sometime before April 25, 1896.
Mandy Henderson was Mattie and Chloe’s sister and the cook at The Wren’s Nest. Of the three sisters, she is mentioned the least often. Celie replaced her as cook by 1890.
Rufus Henderson was the butler and general manservant at The Wren’s Nest. He also cared for the animals on the farm, including the chickens, the goats, and the donkey. He was related to Chloe, however, it is unclear whether he was her husband or her son. His 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. In his letter reporting the news, Joel Chandler Harris remarks, “I’m not at all sorry to get rid of Rufus. He wasn’t worth the salt he ate in his food.” A reminder again that despite any sense of familiarity, he worked for Harris.
Lizzie Henderson was likely one of Chloe’s daughters, but it is never explicitly stated. She frequently helped Chloe cook in the kitchen and/or clean the house.
Ed Henderson is mentioned only once in Harris’s letters (April 25, 1896), but 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 helped with cooking and cleaning around the house.
John is also only mentioned once in Harris’s letters. He helped with a “genuine” spring cleaning at the Nest in April 1898 along with Chloe, Johnson, Lizzie, Rufus, Banks, and Caroline.
Banks was the long-time gardener at The Wren’s Nest. He also sometimes helped in the kitchen. He was married, presumably 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 (by name) when she helped with the “genuine” spring cleaning at the Nest in April 1898.
Celie was also called “Aunt Celie” so it is possible she was related to the Henderson family, but it is not made clear. Celie became The Wren’s Nest’s cook after Mandy in 1890. In her biography, Julia Collier Harris describes her having a “round, cushioned body and shiny, good-humored face, beaming under a red turban from which dangled huge brass moon-shaped earrings.” She was also “very pious” and named one of her children “Ananias” after the profit.
Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law says in her biography:
“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 actually 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. Even Collier Harris’s specific mention of the workers only names three (Chloe, Mattie, and Mandy Henderson).
In mining these letters, we are aware that these are only partial portraits, depictions of these people only as they related to the Harrises. But they played a crucial role in the day-to-day life at The Wren’s Nest. We may not know their full stories, but we are glad we can at least share small glimpses of them.