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.
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.
One of the stranger things we’ve found at the Wren’s Nest is this book from 1993 titled Uncle Remus con chile.
Get a load of that face. Looks like our storyteller has discovered Tex-Mex and become a hipster. Love that red hot chile pepper shirt!
The book is a legitimate collection of humorous folklore from the borderlands along the Rio Grande Valley. It was one of the last volumes published by Américo Paredes, a great Mexican-American folklorist who taught at the University of Texas in Austin and helped found what is now called the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at that institution.
“I must apologize to the serious reader for the title of this volume,” Parades writes in the introduction, apparently wondering whether the Uncle Remus allusion is too gimmicky. The introduction is the only part of the book that’s printed in English.
He needn’t have apologized. Peredes was collecting folklore – humorous folklore – and if that made him think of Uncle Remus and Joel Chandler Harris, well, of course.
(Want to try your own hand at a Brer Rabbit illustration? Check out our new drawing challenge here!)
When you think of Brer Rabbit, chances are the first image that pops into your head looks something like this:
Or possibly just this:
This is understandable given that this is the way animator Wilfred Jackson depicted Brer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South and Disney is pretty pervasive in every part of pop culture today. It’s the way he’s shown on the Splash Mountain ride, in the former comic strip, and on all types of merchandising.
But before Jackson/Disney’s interpretation of the character, depictions of the tricky rabbit were a little less cartoon-ish and a little more dapper.
All of the above illustrations were done by Arthur Burdett Frost (or A.B. Frost).
Frost was born in 1851 in Philadelphia, PA. He was a largely self-taught artist, working mostly with pen and ink but also dabbling in watercolors and engravings. Initially working as an engraver’s apprentice at the age of 15, he was told that he “had no talent for drawing.” Fortunately, he didn’t take this criticism to heart and in 1874, he illustrated Max Adler’s anthology, Out of the Hurly-Burly as a favor to a friend. The surprisingly popular book helped launch Frost’s career as an illustrator. He illustrated for numerous magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Punch as well as Lewis Caroll’s poetry book, Rhyme? and Reason? Frost is also credited with helping to create the American comic strip style of illustration that we are familiar with today. His talent was well-established when Harris enlisted him to illustrate his book.
But Frost was not the original illustrator.
In a letter to the editors of the Evening Post (who had been publishing Harris’s Uncle Remus columns), Harris asked them to advertise the first volume, declaring that it would be published by “Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.” and that Mr. Frederick S. Church would be doing the illustrations.
Church was also an established illustrator with Harper’s Weekly and Harris felt that Church could“[catch] and [express] the humor that lies between what is perfectly decorous in appearance and what is wildly extravagant in suggestion.”
Despite Harris’s claim in one of his letters to Church that he was “a compiler merely” of the illustrations for his book, he took them very seriously. In fact, he also told (and cautioned) Church, “The success of the book will depend upon these illustrations, and I trust, therefore, that you will not enter upon it as a task, merely, or allow yourself to be hurried.”
Church and another illustrator named James H. Moser created the images for Harris’s first book, Unlce Remus His Songs and His Sayings. Unfortunately, the drawings ultimately did not live up to what Harris had in mind. Harris “appreciated their fanciful charms,” but felt Church’s “animal delineations fell short” and “the spirit was good, but the art crude” for Moser’s depictions of Uncle Remus. So he moved on to a new illustrator. Enter Frost.
And Harris was definitely excited about Frost’s drawings of Brer Rabbit! After receiving Frost’s illustrations of the trickster and his nemesis Brer Fox, Harris wrote,
“You have breathed the breath of life into these amiable brethren of wood and field… The book was mine but you have made it yours, both sap and pith.”
Pretty high praise there!
We can’t help but wonder what Harris would have thought of Disney’s Brer Rabbit…
Sadly, he had passed away decades before the movie’s release, so we’ll never know. But perhaps we can help revive Frost’s contribution to making Brer Rabbit come to life for audiences!
When the Wren’s Nest closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, it occurred to us that this was not the first time a virus had shaped our particular history. In fact, an epidemic is precisely what brought the Harris family to Atlanta in the first place!
Joel Chandler Harris called several places home before he moved to the West End of Atlanta. In 1876, home was Savannah, Georgia. In Savannah, Harris was an associate editor and editorial paragraph writer (what we would call a humor columnist today) for the Savannah Morning News. When Harris started working there in 1870, the News was the leading daily newspaper in Georgia, rivaled only by TheAtlanta Constitution. He also made forty dollars a week for the job — a sum so lavish for the time that he said he had to read his offer letter twice before he could believe it.
Harris also had great personal success while living in Savannah. It was there that he met Esther LaRose, who he would eventually marry in 1873. The couple then welcomed their first child, Julian Harris, in 1874 and their second child, Lucien Harris, less than a year later. The young family was set up for a comfortable and happy life in the coastal Georgia city when something unexpected interrupted everything.
In 1876, a yellow fever epidemic swept the South. Yellow fever is a viral disease spread by infected mosquitoes with rather unpleasant symptoms, including the yellow-ish skin and eyes for which the disease is named. Yellow fever thrives in swampy climates or in areas with open sewers… like Savannah at that time. The epidemic started out of a port in the city that August and more than a thousand people died within the first two weeks of its arrival. The disease later spread to the Mississippi River Valley, including New Orleans and Memphis, killing between 13,000 and 20,000 people in 1878.
More than five thousand residents, including the Harris family, evacuated the city in the first month of the Savannah outbreak. As Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, describes in her biography, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris:
It was [that] summer that a keen anxiety for his own children overtook [Harris]; the yellow fever epidemic of 1876 broke out in August, causing consternation amongst the people of Savannah, and driving many of them to inland points. It was not possible for the young wife [Esther] and her two babies to remain in the pest-ridden city, so there was no alternative for the provider of the family but to offer his resignation to Colonel Estill [his boss at the Savannah Morning News] and hasten, with those dependent upon him, to the “high country.”
Although the Harris family fled to safety rather than sheltered-in-place, their fears and worries feel eerily familiar to us today. As Collier Harris explains, “The confusion and uncertainty of the moment must have been a sore trial to the young father, for it is not likely that he had been able to put aside funds against such an unexpected contingency.”
The yellow fever epidemic was devastating, but there were some silver linings. Cities worked to improve their public health and sanitation practices, making them cleaner and safer in an effort to prevent another disease outbreak. The federal government even established the National Board of Health in 1879 to investigate the outbreak. As we face an even worse viral outbreak, we can hope that there will similarly be improvements and discoveries to prevent future pandemics.
In the meantime, we urge you to follow Harris’s example. Not only did he do what he needed to keep his family safe, but he also retained his sense of humor in the face of a disruptive and deadly viral pandemic. According to Collier Harris, when the family first arrived at a hotel in Atlanta, “the Savannah editor’s serene attitude in the face of uncertainty, and his fund of amusing anecdotes did so much to cheer up his fellow refugees and put their panic to flight, that when he asked for his bill he was told that he did not owe the hotel a penny.”
We hope that everyone can draw on their “fund of amusing anecdotes” now and look forward to the future when this pandemic has passed.
In the meantime, we hope you stay safe and healthy!
Gibson, Samantha. “The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.” Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America <http://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-yellow-fever-epidemic-of-1878>.
“The Great Fever 1878 Epidemic.” American Experience, PBS, 2020, <www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/fever-1878-epidemic/>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
Harris, Julia Collier. (1918.) The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY.
The History Engine. U of Richmond, 2015, <historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/3419>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
“Struggles of the Late 19th Century.” Georgia Historical Society, <georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/online-exhibits/three-centuries-of-georgia-history/nineteenth-century/struggles-of-the-late-19th-century/>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.