Journalist Julia Collier Harris’s talented and courageous writing for the Columbus Enquirer-Sun brought Georgia its first Pulitzer Prize in the 1920s.
The eldest child of a prominent Atlanta family, Julia Florida Collier trained as an illustrator until her mother’s fatal illness obliged her to postpone a career and see to her father’s household and six younger siblings. In 1897 she married Atlanta journalist Julian LaRose Harris, the eldest son of famous Georgia writer Joel Chandler Harris, and following the separate, tragic deaths of her father and her two young sons between 1900 and 1904 her marriage became a professional union as well.
Her husband and father-in-law launched Uncle Remus's Magazine in 1907, and she wrote book reviews and articles on the arts for the journal, often under the pseudonym “Constance Bine.” The magazine folded in 1913, and the couple moved to New York and then Paris, as Julian joined the New York Herald and its companion paper in Paris and Julia leapt into daily journalism at both, writing mostly on arts and culture for the Herald Sunday edition and news syndicate.
In Paris, Harris published her first book, The Foundling Prince, a collection of Romanian folktales gathered in the 19th century by Petre Ispirescu. Working with a Romanian scholar’s French translations, Julia rendered Ispirescu’s stories in English and published them in 1917 to critical approval. Almost immediately the publisher Houghton-Mifflin contracted her to write the first biography of her father-in-law, who had died in 1908. The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris (1918) was an important, highly-praised work that deepened public understanding of Harris’s career, going beyond his “Uncle Remus” tales and discussing his many years as a principal “New South” journalist at the Atlanta Constitution.
As Julian did wartime military service in Washington, D.C., Julia worked for the War Department censorship division. Years later, reflecting critically on her “ludicrous” work identifying books harmful to the war effort, she said, “all of us, the most intelligent, were caught in this war hysteria—I keep them as a warning.” Post-war, she would become one of very few female reporters at the Treaty of Versailles, an event she described for Atlanta Constitution readers in a column entitled “The Uncommon in the Commonplace.”
In 1920 Harris and her husband invested in, and in 1922 purchased, the Columbus (Ga.) Enquirer-Sun, where Julia created the paper’s book review page and became a frequent contributor. But it was the Enquirer-Sun’s commitment to push Progressive reform that set it apart from other Georgia newspapers, and Julia’s courageous writing was indispensable to that mission.
By this time she had joined her husband as a seasoned journalist, and both Julia Collier Harris and her husband regarded the news editorial as her particular specialty. Between 1922 and 1929 she wrote hundreds of the Enquirer-Sun’s crusading editorials, many so impressively composed that they were reprinted by other newspapers across the South.
The Enquirer-Sun gained a reputation nationally for battling illiteracy and ignorance, terror and corruption. Julia and Julian aimed the paper’s bully-pulpit at the powerful Ku Klux Klan influence in Georgia, condemned lynchings, pointed out unequal, malign disparities in how whites and blacks were treated in the justice system, and – an equal affront to the segregated mindset of their time -- they initiated a newspaper section devoted to news in the “Negro community.”
Julia’s editorials repeatedly challenged state government on Georgia’s abysmal public education record – first nationally in illiteracy, last in school appropriations. In power struggles, Enquirer-Sun editorials sided with the underdog, choosing, for example, to back University of Georgia students and faculty in arguments over free speech and governance with the school’s trustees.
Invigorated by Julia’s editorial writing, the Enquirer-Sun was instrumental in defeating anti-evolution legislation in Georgia in 1924 and 1925. Then, in June 1925, working as a team with her husband, Julia represented the Enquirer-Sun -- one of only two Georgia papers to send reporters -- at the anti-evolution trial of Tennessee teacher John Scopes. He covered the daily legal maneuvers while Julia wrote in-depth, critical “atmosphere” features and daily editorials that explained Darwinism and chronicled the public debate on evolution.
In a 1998 Ph.D. dissertation on Julia Collier Harris, scholar Marie Hardin writes, “Friends and observers often remarked that her writing style was better than that of her husband” and even Julian himself agreed “Julia was the better writer.” An editorialist at the Dalton Citizen wrote that Julia’s writing echoed “the independence and fearlessness” of H.L. Mencken. “Her work is broad and liberal, and sham and pretense are given no quarter. Her style is pleasing and her vision is far-seeing.”
The strength of its editorial writing – mostly Julia’s – won the Enquirer-Sun the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1926. It was only the second public service prize awarded to a Southern newspaper—the first to a Georgia paper or any small circulation daily paper—since the awards had begun in 1917. The Pulitzer jury credited the Enquirer-Sun’s "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.”
Julian Harris accepted the award as newspaper owner with equanimity, acknowledging the paper’s vice-president: “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.”
The crusades that brought Georgia its first Pulitzer Prize were costly to Mrs. Harris and her husband. Plummeting local advertising and declining subscriptions forced them to sell the Enquirer-Sun in 1929, and in 1930 they left Columbus heavily in debt. Julian took an editor’s job at the Atlanta Constitution, and Julia accepted an offer from the University of North Carolina Press to edit and introduce a compilation of her father-in-law’s unpublished essays, Joel Chandler Harris: Editor and Essayist (1931). She also contributed regular features on the arts to the Constitution, and she wrote a “Travel Notes” series about Germany, which she and Julian toured in the summer of 1931 on an Oberlaender Trust fellowship.
In 1935 Julian became executive editor of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times, and Julia took a fulltime position there writing features, editorials, book reviews and a weekly column (“From My Balcony”).
However, ever since the untimely, barely interrupted deaths of both parents and her two small children thirty years before, Julia had suffered intermittent depression, exhaustion, and nervous breakdowns that hospitalized her. After a lengthy such hospitalization in late 1936, when she was sixty-one, her doctors advised her to retire for good. In 1942 the Harrises returned to Atlanta, where Julian worked as a New York Times correspondent until he, too, retired in 1945.
Julia Collier Harris and Julian Harris were married for sixty-five years until his death in 1963. She died in Atlanta four years later, a resident of the A.G. Rhodes nursing home, where into her nineties she continued to meet and encourage young writers.
In 1996 Julia Collier Harris and her husband were inducted into the Georgia Newspaper Hall of Fame at the University of Georgia’s journalism school. In 1998 the Georgia Women of Achievement’s Hall of Fame, honoring “female trailblazers of Georgia,” added Mrs. Harris to its ranks, “for her considerable professional accomplishments, her gentle, thoughtful integrity, and for having the courage of her convictions.”
The following titles by Julia Coller Harris are held by the Hargrett Rare Book & Manuscript Library:
The Foundling Prince & Other Tales ... from the Roumanian of Petre Inspirescu [translator/editor]. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917.
The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
Joel Chandler Harris, Editor and Essayist [editor]. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1931.