Lain Shakespeare’s first day as executive director of The Wren’s Nest was a memorable one. Georgia Power came to turn off the electricity, the house itself was crumbling and mounting debt meant the home where Joel Chandler Harris wrote his Uncle Remus tales was on the verge of being closed.
That was five years ago.
Since then, Shakespeare, 28, and a small staff have rescued The Wren’s Nest from obscurity and transformed it into one of the most noted house museums in America. Earlier this year, Shakespeare decided it was time to change up his role at the house and will step down as executive director in September.
As the great-great-great grandson of the author, Shakespeare had been visiting The Wren’s Nest since he was a child, often made to read Brer Rabbit stories to visiting relatives. Like many, he saw the 140-year-old Victorian house in West End as a relic of the past and the Uncle Remus stories as promoting racial stereotypes.
With a little maturity and research, Shakespeare discovered that the misconceptions about Harris’ stories were, in part, fostered by the Disney film Song of the South and its depiction of “happy slaves.” With The Wren’s Nest facing closure and at his family’s urging, he stepped in to try and put the museum back on course.
To put Harris and his writing in perspective, Shakespeare created a booklet titled “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus is Wrong.” Critical re-evaluation of Harris’ writing has shown the Uncle Remus tales were cleverly designed to subvert racism and bigotry in the Jim Crow era.
“What I discovered was that no one in my family was telling the Harris story,” Shakespeare said. “We were letting others tell it for us and the misinformation was allowed to flourish.”
Shakespeare brought the house museum into the 21st century, creating a website, regularly updated blog and an hilarious Twitter account with the The Wren’s Nest tweeting about fixes being made and events held on its grounds.
The West End community rallied around the house, its history and ability to bring tourists to the community. The Wren’s Nest is now the cornerstone of the annual West End Tour of Homes. Concerts and literary events at the house have also made it a destination.
Even more importantly, school groups once again visit The Wren’s Nest regularly and the boyish and gregarious Shakespeare often leads tours himself bringing Harris’s folklore and the house vividly to life.
“What I set out to do five years ago has been done,” Shakespeare said. “We have less debt, dedicated volunteers and great partnerships. The museum is moving in the right direction.”
One of the programs Shakespeare is most proud of is the KIPP Scribes Program, a partnership with KIPP STRIVE Academy, the neighborhood charter school. In 2010, The Wren’s Nest brought in professional writers to work with 5th and 6th graders to record an important family story. The result was the book, Don’t Forget the Day, which launched at the Decatur Book Festival.
A second volume, The Whole Fiasco, is set to launch at this year’s book festival over Labor Day weekend. “We’ve totally altered these kids’ relationship with the written word,” Shakespeare said. “They are now published authors. It’s such an exciting thing to witness.”
More vindication of Harris and his tales will come in October when the Atlanta Opera premieres Rabbit Tales, an opera for children based on the high jinks of Brer Rabbit.
Shakespeare’s last day on the job is Sept. 15 and, at this writing, he’s looking for a job in the nonprofit sector. While he won’t be in charge of the day-to-day operations (“We’re going to finally hire someone who knows what they’re doing!”), Shakespeare will transition to chairman of the board of directors for The Wren’s Nest, which will allow him to dedicate more time to fundraising and preserving the house for future generations.
“I’ll still be around,” he laughed. “They’ll have to shoo me away.”
For more about The Wren’s Nest and its programs, visit wrensnestonline.com.