Harris created the first version of the Uncle Remus character for the Atlanta Constitution in 1876 after inheriting a column formerly written by Samuel W. Small, who had taken leave from the paper. In these character sketches, Remus would visit the newspaper office to discuss the social and racial issues of the day. By 1877 Small had returned to the Constitution and resumed his column.
Harris did not intend to continue the Remus character. But when Small left the paper again, Harris reprised Remus. He realized the literary value of the stories he had heard from the slaves of Turnwold Plantation. Harris set out to record the stories and insisted that they be verified by two independent sources before he would publish them. He found the research more difficult given his professional duties, urban location, race and, eventually, fame.
On July 20, 1879, Harris published "The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus" in the Atlanta Constitution. It was the first of 34 plantation fables that would be compiled in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880). The stories, mostly collected directly from the African-American oral storytelling tradition, were revolutionary in their use of dialect, animal personages, and serialized landscapes.
Remus' stories featured a trickster hero called Br'er Rabbit (Brother Rabbit), who used his wits against adversity, though his efforts did not always succeed. Br'er Rabbit is a direct interpretation of Yoruba tales of Hare, though some others posit Native American influences as well. The scholar Stella Brewer Brookes asserts, "Never has the trickster been better exemplified than in the Br'er Rabbit of Harris." Br'er Rabbit was accompanied by friends and enemies, such as Br'er Fox, Br'er Bear, Br'er Terrapin, and Br'er Wolf. The stories represented a significant break from the fairy tales of the Western tradition: instead of a singular event in a singular story, the critters on the plantation existed in an ongoing community saga, time immemorial.
Harris described Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, as a major influence on the characters of Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. When he read Stowe's novel in 1862, he said that it "made a more vivid impression upon my mind than anything I have ever read since." Interpreting Uncle Tom's Cabin as a "wonderful defense of slavery," Harris argued that Stowe's "genius took possession of her and compelled her, in spite of her avowed purpose, to give a very fair picture of the institution she had intended to condemn." In Harris's view, the "real moral that Mrs. Stowe's book teaches is that the. . . realities [of slavery], under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and tenderness all their own."
The Uncle Remus stories garnered critical acclaim and achieved popular success well into the 20th century. Harris published at least twenty-nine books, of which nine books were compiled of his published Uncle Remus stories, including Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1880), Nights with Uncle Remus (1883), Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892), The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904), Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation (1905), Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit (1907). The last three books written by Joel Chandler Harris were published after his death which included Uncle Remus and the Little Boy (1910), Uncle Remus Returns (1918), and Seven Tales of Uncle Remus (1948). The tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few people outside of the South had heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and the dialect had never been legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To Northern and international readers, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown." Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."
The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school.... [We] found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life." The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.
James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced."
Early in his career at the Atlanta Constitution, Joe Harris laid out his editorial ideology and set the tone for an agenda that aimed to help reconcile issues of race, class, and region: "An editor must have a purpose. [...] What a legacy for one's conscience to know that one has been instrumental in mowing down the old prejudices that rattle in the wind like weeds."
Harris served as assistant editor and lead editorial writer at the Atlanta Constitution primarily between 1876 and 1900. He published articles intermittently until his death in 1908. While at the Constitution, Harris, "in thousands of signed and unsigned editorials over a twenty-four-year period, [...] set a national tone for reconciliation between North and South after the Civil War."
Throughout his career, Joe Harris actively promoted racial reconciliation as well as African-American education, suffrage, and equality. He regularly denounced racism among southern whites, condemned lynching, and highlighted the importance of higher education for African Americans, frequently citing the work of W. E. B. Du Bois in his editorials. In 1883, for example, the New York Sun had an editorial: "educating the negro will merely increase his capacity for evil." The Atlanta Constitution editorial countered with: if "education of the negro is not the chief solution of the problem that confronts the white people of the South then there is no other conceivable solution and there is nothing ahead but political chaos and demoralization."
Harris's editorials were often progressive in content and paternalistic in tone. He was committed to the "dissipation of sectional jealousy and misunderstanding, as well as religious and racial intolerance", yet "never entirely freed himself of the idea that the [southern whites] would have to patronize the [southern blacks]."
Harris also oversaw some of the Atlanta Constitution's most sensationalized coverage of racial issues, most notably regarding the 1899 torture and lynching of Sam Hose, an African-American farm worker. Harris resigned from the paper the following year, having lost patience for publishing both "his iconoclastic views on race" and "what was expected of him" at a major southern newspaper during a particularly vitriolic period.
In 1904 Harris wrote four important articles for the Saturday Evening Post discussing the problem of race relations in the South; these highlighted his progressive yet paternalistic views. Of these, Booker T. Washington wrote to him:
"It has been a long time since I have read anything from the pen of any man which has given me such encouragement as your article has. [...] In a speech on Lincoln's Birthday which I am to deliver in New York, I am going to take the liberty to quote liberally from what you have said."
Two years later, Harris and his son Julian founded what would become Uncle Remus's Home Magazine. Harris wrote to Andrew Carnegie that its purpose would be to further "the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” Circulation reached 240,000 within one year, making it one of the largest magazines in the country.
Harris wrote novels, narrative histories, translations of French folklore, children's literature, and collections of stories depicting rural life in Georgia. The short stories "Free Joe and the Rest of the World", "Mingo", and "At Teague Poteets" are the most influential of his non-Uncle Remus creative work. Many of his short stories delved into the changing social and economic values in the South during Reconstruction. Harris's turn as a local colorist gave voice to poor white characters and demonstrated his fluency with different African-American dialects and characters.