The Underrated Julia Collier Harris
Earlier this summer, we launched the first phase of a new digital educational tool: an interactive version of the Harris family tree. We decided to launch the tool in phases in large part because … well, there are a lot of members of this family! And as I continue to research each family member — diving deep into Ancestry.com and old newspapers as well as personal records and stories from living descendants — I’m impressed with their accomplishments and amused by their unique attributes and interests.
No one has impressed me more than Joel Chandler Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris. So, I feel compelled to let everyone know how incredible she was.
Julia Florida Collier was the daughter of Susie and Charles Collier (a one-time Atlanta mayor), born in the city in 1875. After attending boarding school in Boston, Julia graduated from Washington Seminary in Atlanta. In secondary school, she began studying illustration under Henry Sandham, a Canadian painter and illustrator and charter member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. She continued her education at the Cowles Art School and the University of Chicago.
Unfortunately, her career pursuits were cut short when her mother suddenly became ill and she had to return home to Atlanta to care for her six younger siblings. In 1896, she and Julian Harris — Joel Chandler Harris’s oldest son and a budding journalist — became engaged, but the wedding was postponed after Julia’s mother’s health took a turn for the worse and she died. The two were “quietly married” the following October. Because Julia was still caring for her siblings, Julian moved into her childhood home, assisting his wife in the caretaking of the younger Colliers.
Julia and Julian were a formidable couple, eventually co-owning a newspaper and sharing a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service (more on that later). What I love is that the foundation of their relationship was so sweet. The two were so in love that in his letters, Joel Chandler Harris teasingly nicknamed the two “Lovey” and “Dovey.” In a biography she wrote about her father-in-law, Julia remembered how he, “could not resist teasing us a little on the subject of lover’s raptures, yet it was always done with so much geniality that we had no doubt of his sympathy and understanding.”
Julia’s father died in 1900, the beginning of a stretch of tragedies that would affect her throughout her life. Two years later, when they decided the Collier house was too big to maintain, she and Julian moved into a new house down the road from The Wren’s Nest. In addition to the couple, their household consisted of two of Julia’s sisters, one of her brothers, and the couple’s two young sons: Charles and Pierre. Julia later recalled that the two years immediately after they moved in, “were the happiest years of all — tranquil and secure — a golden interlude in life before sorrow took possession of us.”
Between December 1903 and April 1904, Julia and Julian lost both their sons. Their deaths came a mere four months apart. Both children were under five. When writing her father-in-law’s biography nearly fifteen years later, she said, “Even after the lapse of so many years, to recur to such losses is anguish.”
Unsurprisingly, the multiple losses so close together took their toll on Julia. She suffered from bouts of grief and depression, or as Joel Chandler Harris described it, “nervous collapse.” It affected her health so much that she took periodic rest cures in various sanitariums in the years after her children’s deaths. She recovered her health after a few years but still had relapses throughout her life.
One reason I love Julia Collier Harris is that she suffered these devastating losses that could have left her flattened, but she didn’t let them.
Instead, in 1907, she began her journalism career. She started contributing articles to Uncle Remus Magazine, a publication that Julian and his father started and produced out of The Wren’s Nest. When the magazine folded in 1913, Julian and Julia continued their journalism pursuits. He would move from paper to paper and she would go with him, contributing articles and columns for the same papers, including the New York Herald and the Paris Herald. In fact, Julia was one of only two female reporters to cover the Treaty of Versailles.
In 1922, the journalism power couple purchased the Columbus Enquirer-Sun in Georgia. And I do mean the couple. Julia was a co-owner, an associate editor, and the vice president of the paper! The newspaper became famous for its editorials (particularly Julia’s) that pushed for Progressive reforms in the South on issues like literacy, racial justice, and evolution (Julia and Julian even covered the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925). It was at this paper that the two won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, for the “service which it rendered in its brave and energetic fight against the Ku Klux Klan; against the enactment of a law barring the teaching of evolution; against dishonest and incompetent public officials and for justice to the Negro and against lynching.”
Julia was largely responsible for the award because, by his own admission, she was a better writer than her husband and it was her editorials that garnered notice. In accepting the prize, Julian said, “Associated with me in the ownership and editorial management, is my wife Julia Collier Harris. … She is a trained newspaper woman, and as fearless as she is intelligent, unyielding in the face of injustice of any kind, and a constant inspiration.” Again, reaffirming for me that these two were definitely “couple goals.”
As if all this wasn’t enough, Julia also wrote three books. The first was called The Foundling Prince and was a collection of Romanian folktales. She also wrote two biographies of Joel Chandler Harris (The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris and Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist) that we’re still referencing today (including for this blog post) to find out about the more personal aspects of the author’s life.
Julia retired from journalism in 1936 when another bout of depression was serious enough that her doctor advised her to stop working. However, she continued to meet with, advise, and encourage young writers until she died in 1967.
She was (rightfully!) inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2019.
It feels like sacrilege to say, but given all she accomplished in an era when it was still uncommon for women have a career let alone be so career-focused and in spite of repeated personal traumas that caused her to suffer from a poorly understood mental disorder, I think she is actually more impressive than Joel Chandler Harris himself. And in case it isn’t clear from this post, I definitely think we should be talking about her more!