When Kennesaw State University announced at the end of last year that it had accepted a donation of the 56-acre homestead of Georgia’s first best-selling female novelist — a property containing the oldest building in Bartow County and valued at more than $3 million — it seemed like a coup.
The Georgia Writers Association, whose administrative offices are based at KSU, certainly thought so. The nonprofit group, which holds writing workshops and sponsors an annual book awards ceremony, thought the site would be an ideal place to hold its spring retreat. In fact, it was suggested, the event could even be named for the property’s once famous former owner, Corra White Harris.
No one in the group knew much of Harris save what was in the university press release: In the early years of the 20th century, she was considered one of the state’s most celebrated writers and its most popular female author. Her most famous work, the pseudo-autobiographical 1910 novel A Circuit-Rider’s Wife, had been made into a movie starring Susan Hayward. Harris wrote serialized fiction and essays for some of the top magazines of the day and is even credited with being America’s first female war correspondent, covering World War I for the Saturday Evening Post. She published 19 books in all and, in the years before her death in 1935, was a regular columnist for the Atlanta Journal.
Kevin Cantwell, an English professor at Macon State College who was then the association’s board president, says he decided to do some research into Harris’ writings so the group would know a little more about its prospective literary mascot.
It took only a few minutes on the Internet before he came across a bombshell — an inflammatory piece of writing that effectively launched Harris’ career.
Richard Vengroff, the dean of humanities and social sciences at KSU, was one of the first people an appalled Cantwell told about his discovery: a letter to the editor by Harris that ran in an 1899 issue of the Independent, a respected New York magazine.
Says Vengroff: “I’ve seen a lot of racist documents in my 35 years of teaching, but that letter is one of the worst things I’ve ever read.”
Vengroff isn’t just whistling “Dixie.” Responding to an Independent editorial condemning a lynching in Newnan earlier that year of accused murderer and rapist Sam Hose — now widely considered the most savage and notorious lynching of a black man in state history — Harris attempted to defend the motives of the mob.
“The negro is the mongrel of civilization,” she wrote. “He has married its vices and he is incapable of imitating its virtues.”
As Harris saw it, “to-day in the South every white woman lives next door to a savage brute who grows more intelligent and more insolent in his outrages every year. … At no time, in no place, is the white woman safe from the insults and assaults of these creatures.”
Lynching, while admittedly repugnant, she explained, was the understandable reaction by Southern whites to the threat posed by the black man, who “has the savage nature and the murderous instincts of the wild beast, plus the cunning and lust of a fiend.”
After reviewing the letter, the writers association quickly moved its retreat to St. Simons Island and dashed any notion of branding the event with Harris’ name.
“I feel like we dodged a big bullet,” says Cantwell.
Vengroff, however, was alarmed that his university seemed poised to effectively honor Harris by agreeing to maintain the house where she lived and the chapel where she is buried. He showed the letter to KSU President Daniel Papp, who, Vengroff says, “expressed shock” and conceded that it looked as if the school hadn’t done proper “due diligence” in vetting Harris’ background — even though most online biographies of the writer make at least passing mention of the 1899 letter.
International affairs professor Nurudeen Akinyemi was one of four black faculty members who met with Papp early on to discuss what to do with the property, which had been donated by Jodie Hill, an elderly Cartersville businessman whose mother was a fan of Harris’ novels.
“We told the president we didn’t want anything to do with the land and the university shouldn’t accept it,” says Akinyemi, coordinator of KSU’s African and African diaspora studies. “KSU jumped at the offer because of the value of the property, but the university should not be in the business of promoting someone who defended lynching. Given the fact that the woman is buried there and the site is a perpetual memorial to her, anyone who owns it will be the protector of her legacy.”
Akinyemi says Papp told the group that the university would consider all options, even divesting itself of the property.
Before long, the Harris homestead became a major campus controversy. Panel discussions were held by the administration to address the issue, while an anonymous website, ksusaysno.weebly.com, called it “a bloody land acquisition.” Papp formed a committee of KSU staff and faculty to study the issue and prepare recommendations to the administration on whether the school should keep the property, and, if so, for what purpose.
Vengroff was vocal about his views, arguing in e-mails to Papp and other staff members that the school, which is part of the University System of Georgia, couldn’t abide by its agreement to maintain Harris’ house and property without seeming to lend legitimacy to her beliefs. “I personally find that letter so reprehensible that its author cannot be redeemed,” Vengroff says.
Then, in April, someone anonymously sent him documents from the Bartow County tax assessors office showing the value of the Harris property to be less than $1 million — far short of the more than $3 million that had been claimed. He shared that information with the administration as well.
Days later, Vengroff says, the university provost told him he was the subject of complaints by other faculty members. Over the course of several weeks, Vengroff says, he was never told what he’d been accused of doing, apart from a vague implication that he “didn’t treat women equitably.”
Finally, he says, he was told the investigation had ended. But Vengroff believes the incident was part of an effort on the part of KSU to silence those who’d complained about the Harris acquisition.
“The university had to get the approval of the Board of Regents to accept the property,” he says. “For the administration to reverse itself at this time would be extremely embarrassing.”
For now, the advisory committee is still considering an array of options, which, according to KSU spokesperson Arlethia Perry-Johnson, still includes selling the land.
“We’re engaging in a full discourse to determine a course of action,” she says. “We want all stakeholders to know this is not a fait accompli.”
No one is shocked more by the KSU controversy than Catherine Oglesby, a history professor at Valdosta State University who did part of her doctoral dissertation on Harris’ writings.
“I’m surprised that the most vocal opposition is coming from the academic community,” she says. “They don’t seem to grasp the historic context, which is that Harris was of an era when no Southerners held progressive views on race.”
After the 1899 letter, which launched Harris’ literary career, the author never again wrote as explicitly on the subject of race, Oglesby says, although her fiction is characterized by the kind of racial paternalism that was commonplace then. While there’s no evidence to suggest Harris overcame her bigotry, Oglesby concedes, she used her writing to chide those who clung to an outdated ideal of a glorious antebellum South. These days, most of the criticism from academics focuses on Harris’ old-fashioned antipathy toward feminism.
“The woman was a reflection of her time, which has many contradictions,” Oglesby says. “Monticello isn’t a memorial to Thomas Jefferson raping his slaves. If the fastest-growing university in Georgia can’t find a way to honor this woman’s accomplishments while acknowledging her prejudices, they should probably just give the land back.”