Was Joel Chandler Harris a progressive that cleverly subverted white power and racism or an anthropological thief that profited from the traditions of enslaved people that could not profit? If you’re looking for the answer to that question, you may or may not find it here. While the modern controversies that surround Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus tales cannot be ignored, I would like to focus on The Wren’s Nest, the family home of Harris, which is currently the oldest house museum in Atlanta. This building showcases an interesting picture into Atlanta history and offers good people doing good things for the community.
The story of Harris starts in Eatonton, Georgia in 1845, born to a single Irish immigrant mother. He would never know his father. As a child, Harris and his mother lived in a small cabin behind the stately home of a wealthy doctor. It was this doctor that financed Joel’s early education, and as a teenager he found work as a printer’s devil for Jeffersonian newspaper man, plantation owner and slave master Joseph Addison Turner. According to Harris, it was while working at Turner’s Turnwold Plantation where he was first exposed to the traditional oral tales of the African slaves, many of them featuring a trickster rabbit.
During the Civil War it was Turner’s newspaper The Countryman that exposed Joel Chandler Harris to crafting printed words. The publication would eventually shut down in 1866, and Harris jumped around Georgia for the next decade, with a brief stint in New Orleans. For money he was a writer and editor for newspapers. By 1876 he was fleeing a yellow fever epidemic in Savannah with a young wife and two younger children. The Harris family would settle in downtown Atlanta in that year.
Harris was hired by the Atlanta Constitution in 1876 as well, and was quite successful as a newspaper man. He almost stumbled upon writing books. The story goes that one day the young editor was asked to fill in for an absent column writer. It was this Atlanta Constitution column that would feature Uncle Remus, an old African American created from the mind of Joel Chandler Harris. Uncle Remus framed old traditional slave stories filled with Native American and African themes. Each tale was richly dipped in a folksy plantation setting, many of them featuring Brer Rabbit (sometimes known as Brother, Br’er or Bruh Rabbit) and one of them the infamous Tar Baby.
It’s important to note here other white writers had tackled these stories before Harris, with identical characters taken from southern slave stories. But nobody had the success that Joel Chandler Harris encountered with Uncle Remus. By 1880 Harris compiled his columns and published Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation. To say the book was a success would be an understatement. It would make Joel Chandler Harris a household name across America.
In 1881 the Harris family moved from downtown Atlanta to the Broomhead Tract, also known as Snap Bean Farm, five acres with a small one-story frame farmhouse. It was a rental located at 214 Gordon Street in West End, then an independent village outside of Atlanta accessible by trolley cars drawn by mules. The address was later changed to 1050; the street was switched to Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard. And the name was later changed from Snap Bean Farm to The Wren’s Nest by Harris after a wren built a nest in the mailbox.
The simple farmhouse was built by George Muse in 1870. Muse’s Clothing Store was a staple in Atlanta for nearly 100 years, and the Muse Building is pictured below. No doubt due to the success of Uncle Remus, in 1883 Joel Chandler Harris purchased the five acre property and home. But it was not the beautiful structure we see today.
In 1884 Harris hired architect George P. Humphreys of Norman and Humphreys to remodel the home. Humphreys created the Queen Anne design, with clapboard siding, fish scale shingles, intricate fretwork, trim, gables and latticework. The former one-story square farmhouse with a single hallway from the front to the rear was transformed into a sprawling asymmetrical two-story home with a “study among the treetops” built on the second floor for Chandler to use as a writing room. Most sources indicated he never used this upper room, preferring to write in his bedroom or on the front porch. And during my recent visit to repair a historical marker, Sue Gilman, Executive Director at The Wren’s Nest, indicated it was used as a children’s room for two of the six Harris children that lived at the Wren’s Nest (along with Grandma Harris a crew of pets).
This brings us back to Joel Chandler Harris and the stories he created. From 1881 until his death on July 3rd, 1908, Harris was both an editor for the Atlanta Constitution and a serial book writer, penning hundreds of volumes, with a majority of them returning to the plantation tales of Uncle Remus. And unfortunately for the staff at The Wren’s Nest, the Harris stories can come across to modern audiences as racist and bigoted, since they do use derogatory terms. Some literature buffs have even called out Harris for stealing pieces of African American oral history for profit.
This debate that surrounds Joel Chandler Harris is ironically stuck to him like the Tar Baby. It will follow his legacy forever. But champions of Harris indicate he always took a righteous path in his editorials when it came to race relations, and that his Uncle Remus stories are filled with hints and situations that subvert traditional white Anglo power. For an extensive defense of Harris read this Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus is Wrong by former Wren’s Nest executive director Lain Shakespeare. I will return to this subject below.
Like the beautiful exterior of the Wren’s Nest, the interior is filled with beautiful people doing great things for the Atlanta community. The storytellers at the Wren’s Nest put on entertaining and educational shows while the staff organizes writing workshops for kids that are truly innovative; one program matches a professional writer with a youngster to publish a story. Visit the Wren’s Nest website here for more information or stop by 1050 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard.
The home was immediately turned into a house museum upon Joel’s death in 1908; before and after he passed the five acres was broken up and sold, with three homes being built for Harris children during his lifetime (the large church next door was built in 1950). The Wren’s Nest now sits on three acres. In 1962 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Back to the controversies. In the last fifty years or so the Uncle Remus tales have come under fire. I had prepared an uncomfortable and extensive look at the racial aspects of the Joel Chandler Harris stories. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the aisles when it comes to the opening question.
But while drafting my ideas I recalled a story about W.E.B. DuBois. It involved a man that was lynched because a white woman said he felt her up while on an elevator. Because he was an African American, the man was brutally chopped apart and burned alive by a crazed mob. Since DuBois was a leading thinker on race relations, the Atlanta Constitution asked for an interview regarding the lynching.
On his way to the interview DuBois learned the lynched man’s knuckles were on sale in a shop he was about to pass by on the road. Disgusted, DuBois turned around, headed home and never did the interview. When it comes to further debate about Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus and the times in Atlanta history they represent I must politely disengage, be silent and head home. We should never ignore the brutal and horrible aspects of Atlanta history. I hope this article has equally acknowledged both sides of this debate and serves as a good starting point for learning about Joel Chandler Harris and The Wren’s Nest. Regardless of your feelings about the man and his writing, The Wren’s Nest is an exceptional place to visit. What are your thoughts? Special thanks to M.H. Mitchell, Inc. for inspiring this story.