Approximately forty years ago, my mother and her sister, whose family lived in the close by community of Lakewood, took my brother, cousins, and me to visit The Wren’s Nest in the West End neighborhood of Atlanta. I can’t remember anything about the visit except a general sense of the adventure I always felt when we went on outings with my closest cousins. So it was with anticipation that I approached the house on a recent warm fall afternoon accompanied by fellow blogger Christina Kaylor.
The house, built in 1870, is described on the National Register of Historic Places as “the oldest house museum” in the city. Originally a farm house owned by George Muse, founder of Muse’s Men’s Store, an Atlanta institution, the home was first rented in 1881, then purchased in 1883, by Joel Chandler Harris, known locally as an associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution and internationally as the compiler of the Uncle Remus Tales.
The Queen Anne home with its wrap-around porch and gingerbread trim is immediately distinguishable from the surrounding modern buildings. The stones placed carefully around the front of the house, known as the Author’s Walk, honor among others, well-known authors such as Francis Scott Key and Margaret Mitchell. As we cross the front porch, we are ushered into a room that was part of the original farmhouse (known then as Snap-Bean Farm) by long time docent Jeri McWilliams. As she points out photographs of the original structure, we are barely able to recognize the home that Harris and his wife ultimately created. Ms. McWilliams seasons her presentation with anecdotes about Harris and his family that make our tour anything but a dry history lesson. She begins by explaining that the home’s name was changed to The Wren’s Nest when the Harris children discovered wrens nesting in the wooden mailbox, now one of the artifacts on display. Rather than disturb the birds, the family erected another mailbox for the U. S. mail delivery, and wrens are still said to be regular residents of the current mailbox.
As we move through the house that contains period furniture, many items of which were part of the original Harris furnishings, several pieces stand out: the piano the Harris girls played with its built-in candleholders for lighting the keyboard, the china cabinet given as a gift by Theodore Roosevelt and his wife, and the oilskin sofa stuffed with horsehair. Perhaps the most fascinating room of all is the one where Harris died, which has been preserved as it was at the time of his death. The indoor bathroom with its huge bathtub and wooden toilet seat is also intriguing, partly because we are told Harris refused to use it believing that in-house bathrooms were unclean. As we exit the back of the house, we see the welcoming benches of the community reading garden established by Barbara Hastings, who has facilitated the implementation of other such gardens in a dozen other large U. S. cities. Here storytelling takes place every Saturday at 1:00 unless the weather dictates that the performance take place in the front room of the house.
As I visited the museum the second time as an adult in 2013, my perspective was very different from that of a child who was excited about seeing the home of the man who introduced me to Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus. As I considered writing an article about Joel Chandler Harris’s home, I was keenly aware of the racial tension that in recent decades has swirled around the celebration of the life and work of this white recorder of the Uncle Remus tales told in black dialect. While some have seen the Uncle Remus Tales as perpetuating racial stereotypes, others have viewed them as a valuable preservation of African-American folk tales. The illegitimate, socially awkward Harris found a nurturing community among slaves as a young child on a middle Georgia plantation, and it is to “their” stories that he owes most of his fame. My interest in visiting the house was piqued partly by recent publicity I’d seen about the efforts of the author’s descendant, Lain Shakespeare, Executive Director of The Wren’s Nest, to raise funds to restore the museum and its reputation, a legacy sullied by segregationist admissions policies not lifted until the 1960’s. When questioned about the controversy, our tour guide, who describes having been denied admission to the house as a child in the neighborhood, repeatedly referred us to a book by Walter M. Brasch, Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the ‘Cornfield Journalist’: The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris.
Intrigued, I examined a copy of the book, and while I have merely had an opportunity for a cursory examination, the author, a professor of journalism and mass communications at Bloomsburg University, has clearly completed a massive amount of research as his thirteen page bibliography attests. Chapter titles such as “Very Close to the Untutored Spirit of Humanity” and “Distorted Words and Illiterate Grammar” and “A National Heritage” and “A Bad Odor Among the Younger Generation” suggest some extremely disparate opinions about Harris and his “Uncle Remus” tales.
The Wren’s Nest is a historical destination many find worth visiting for its literary and architectural value. With its racial “baggage,” perhaps it is particularly relevant to much of the history of the United States and especially the South. Indicative of the continuing importance of and interest in this issue, the November 7, 2013 issue of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution carries an article by Emily Wagster Pettus that tells of several large cities, including Jackson, Mississippi and Atlanta, Georgia, that are dedicating museums that will address “America’s complex history of race relations.”
Have any of you visited museums that you believe are particularly effective in presenting the story of this unique aspect of American history either intentionally or perhaps indirectly as is perhaps the case with The Wren’s Nest?