Branching Out with an Interactive Harris Family Tree

When you visit The Wren’s Nest, you’re likely there because of Joel Chandler Harris. And it makes sense. He was a famous journalist and author during his time, rivaling Mark Twain in popularity. His books were basically international best sellers so it’s natural that his fans rallied together after his death to make his home a museum. Without him, who knows what would have become of The Wren’s Nest? For all we know, the house may have disappeared.

Yes, there’s no denying that Joel Chandler Harris is the reason The Wren’s Nest exists as a historic house museum today.

But he was not the only resident in the house. And he is certainly not the only Harris family member to have to have made a mark on the world. We wanted to highlight all of the Harris family members, not just Joel. So, with the help of a generous grant from Georgia Humanities, we are excited to announce the launch of the first phase of a new digital education tool: an interactive version of the Harris family tree!

As you can clearly see, the Harris family is quite extensive, so we’re launching the interactive in phases. In this first phase, you can find out more about Joel Chandler Harris’s immediate family – his wife and his nine children. Discover which children followed in their father’s footsteps and pursued a career in journalism; which child’s birth Harris considered to be a sign of good luck; and which child Harris dedicated a book to.

One thing I love about historic houses is that they are so intimate. They are literally a historical person’s home; where they sought refuge from the world and where they were just a husband or wife or a son or daughter. Creating this tool has brought the intimacy to a new level for me. I read through Harris’s letters to his family – which are incredibly well documented by the way! – seeing his personal communications. I also worked with his living descendants, Linda Harris and Annette Shakespeare, to gather as much information as possible from family stories and scrapbooks. I feel like I’ve gotten another window into the Harris family’s life.

I’m very grateful for Linda and Annette’s help and that they allowed me – and now all of us – into yet another intimate family space.

You can explore the family tree here!

Of Madness and Rabbits

Our second online book talk, at 4 p.m. this Sunday, showcases a book with an unusual title: Jesus Goes to Hollywood: A Memoir of Madness.

Please let us explain.

The author, Tom Matte (right) of suburban Atlanta, tells a cautionary tale of what can happen when a normal-seeming life collides with substance abuse and mental illness. Tom was a successful marketing man — that’s his clever Instagram meme with Brer Rabbit at far right. A few years ago, his recreational use of cocaine spun out of control and started rewiring his brain. He grew paranoid, tried to burn down his house, left his wife and two children, and went on a three-continent spending spree that cleaned out their savings and left him penniless and sleeping on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier in California. At one point, he was so crazy he imagined he was Jesus –– hence the title.

Tom ended up serving time in two Georgia jails and then slowly climbed his way back from the abyss. The last section of the book is about his mental healing and his arduous efforts to reconnect with his family. After all he did to them, it wasn’t easy.

Tom’s memoir is horrifying, but it’s also darkly humorous in places. Mixing the two is a technique as old as storytelling. We certainly recognize it here at the Wren’s Nest because the fellow who used to live here, Joel Chandler Harris, mixed them quite often in the Uncle Remus stories. In “The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf,” to name one example, Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Wolf into being boiled alive, and then calls his friends over for a celebratory feast. The last we see of Brer Wolf is a pelt hanging on the back porch.

We can assure you that no animals were harmed in Tom’s memoir. His mental well-being was another matter.

To attend the book talk, register at Eventbrite and you’ll receive an email with a link to join the meeting on Zoom. It’s free, and books will be available for sale. Hope to see you Sunday.

 

Another troubled time

A Paris publication’s depiction of the riot

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.

 

The Wren’s Nest Comes to You

The Wren’s Nest is excited to announce the launch of its first guided virtual tour, now available here!

In the wake of COVID-19, The Wren’s Nest has been closed to visitors since mid-March. Like so many businesses and museums, we have shut our doors until we know it safe for visitors to return. It’s been a shame to have this house, which has been a museum for more than 100 years and is a physical link to the historic West End neighborhood’s past, sit empty for months. But the great challenge of a physical link to the past like a historic house is that it’s just that: physical. It’s not something you can easily send or share with others.

Thank goodness for technology. Because now you can take a guided tour of this Atlanta fixture from the comfort of your own home. That’s right: This is a tour you can take without ever putting your shoes on. Or your pants. It is #quarantinelife after all and we’re not here to judge.

 

This general information tour provides an overview of some of the museum’s highlights. Using Google map technology, you can move throughout the house and discover facts about the rooms and/or the objects in them. Discover how we got our name in the East Parlor; move to the Girls’ Bedroom and learn why there’s a mirror on the floor; or stop in at Joel Chandler Harris’s Bedroom and see a room basically untouched by time.

In a strange twist of fate, we have actually been working on this tour for several months, before the pandemic ever struck. We were fortunate enough to receive a grant from Georgia Humanities funding the project and have been working with the talented Google Trusted Independent Photographer DJ Jennings from Atlanta Street View Inside to make the idea a reality. It just so happens that now more than ever, a virtual guided tour of the house is the only way to take a guided tour of the house.

We hope that will change soon. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this virtual tour. And we hope to bring you more of them highlighting different subject areas in the future. We look forward to the day when we can welcome visitors back in person to actually walk through the museum. Especially since we were busy renovating the house before COVID-19, so there will be a few changes the next time you visit.

And we will insist that you wear pants and shoes then.

Writing in a time of coronavirus

Perhaps it was an omen.

Three Scribes at KIPP Strive Academy working on their stories before the shutdown. From left: Amaya Conner, Faith Lawrence, Amirah Jabbie.

In January, when we asked students in our Scribes writing program to pick a topic for their stories, we suggested that since it was 2020, they look 20 years ahead and describe the world of the near future. Our students are middle-schoolers and love science fiction, so many of them imagined doomsday scenarios involving meteors and climate disasters.

We had no idea how eerie it would all seem in a few weeks.

Scribes is one of the best things we do at the Wren’s Nest. Every year, we recruit media professionals to mentor middle-school students at the KIPP Strive Academy, a public charter school that occupies the former Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School building near our home in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. Lain Shakespeare, our former executive director, started the program in 2010. More than 125 students and more than 110 different mentors — writers, academics, journalists, PR people — have participated. This is our 10th anniversary year.

My wife, Pam, and I — both semi-retired journalists — directed this year’s program in consultation with KIPP English teacher Celeste Clark. Twenty-five students and 15 mentors signed up. We would meet every Thursday after school and spend an hour working with the students, getting to know them, helping them choose their topics, talking about storytelling, critiquing their early drafts in Google Docs. You could feel the enthusiasm.

Then the pandemic struck.

The 2019 class of Scribes in the entrance of the old Joel Chandler Harris Elementary School.

We had just finished our March 12 session when the Atlanta school system announced that all classrooms would be closed because of the coronavirus. We were seven weeks into a 12-week course, and we weren’t sure whether we could continue.

We tried to mentor our students online. But as any teacher in America can tell you now, distance learning, while better than nothing, pales in comparison to classroom instruction. Some of our Scribes had internet connectivity issues. Many were distracted by the strangeness of trying to work in a shelter-at-home environment. Some no doubt saw it as an extended snow day.

The goal of Scribes is to produce a collection of stories that the Wren’s Nest publishes in a book. We’ve put out 10 Scribes volumes since 2010 — that’s last year’s cover on the left. Every Labor Day weekend, we host a launch party for the students and their families at the Decatur Book Festival, one of the largest and best book festivals in the country. I’ve been to many of these parties and have never tired of watching bright middle-schoolers become published authors for the first time.

It’s going to be different this year. More than half of the students have not finished their stories, so we don’t have enough content for a traditional book. Nor is the book festival likely to take place as it usually does, with tens of thousands of people roaming the streets and crowding assembly halls and church sanctuaries to hear authors talk. There will be no book launch party for our Scribes and their families this year.

So we’re doing what we can to celebrate these student authors. We’re editing the stories we have, choosing excerpts from some of the incomplete ones, and publishing samples of their work on the Wren’s Nest website in the coming weeks. It isn’t what we planned, but we’ve all had to change plans of late.

We promise these stories won’t be too apocalyptic. One of the unfinished ones, for instance, was going to describe a world overrun with giant cats. The working title: “Cat-pocalypse.”

If only our reality had been as cute.

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