SMYRNA, Ga. — For half a century, celebrities, tourists and locals flocked to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a restaurant known as much for its Southern menu as it was for its portrayal of plantation life and racist imagery, where white customers were served by young black men . waiters with wooden menu boards like yokes slung around their necks.
Aunt Fanny herself, Fanny Williams, a black cook who worked for the white family that owned the business, was once described in a newspaper article as “a famous colored mommy.”
The restaurant closed 30 years ago, but the little white cottage, easily overlooked along Atlanta Road in the small suburban town of Smyrna, has become the center of an unlikely debate about how a southern community can top her painful past without forgetting her history in the process.
City officials recently proposed tearing down the building, arguing that it had deteriorated so much that fixing it would be too expensive. The site had been a source of civic unrest for years, but among those who fought hardest to save it were members of Smyrna’s black community, who argued that demolishing the cabin would erase a critical part of local black history. Last week, the decision to preserve Aunt Fanny’s cabin but move it to a nearby farm gave fans a chance to wrestle with how best to preserve the complicated history of the restaurant – and of Mrs. Williams herself.
“The city is ashamed and instead of figuring out how to honor Fanny Williams, they want to erase her,” said Maryline Blackburn, leader of the Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a group of black and white residents who worked to preserve the building. . “Those images of the boys with the menus are outrageous. However, that is part of the story. You can’t change it. You can’t take it off, sweep it under a rug to feel better about it.”
The Aunt Fanny’s discussion comes at a time when dozens of Confederate statues and other symbols of the Old South have been removed or relocated. But the fate of the Smyrna restaurant has been divisive and personal in a different way, as black residents look back on their own experiences working at Aunt Fanny’s and seek to learn more about the woman at the center of the debate.
Segregated in its early years, Aunt Fanny’s Shack operated from 1941 to 1992 and served fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, “Smithfield ham gen-u-wine” and other regional specialties. Blacks worked as cooks, hosts, servers, and busboys. Waiters were forced to sing for white customers. The uniforms of the employees included aprons and turbans that were reminiscent of the days of slavery. It was, for a time, one of the best known restaurants in the Atlanta area and inspired other local restaurants that romanticized the region’s plantation history.
Jackie Gleason ate at Aunt Fanny’s. Also Clark Gable.
Some former employees look back on the institution with nothing but disgust.
“It reminds me of nothing but racism,” said Roderick McNeal, who worked at Aunt Fanny’s in the summer of 1959. “It’s the home of an old racist, and it’s time for him to go.”
Lisa Castleberry, who worked there in the 1970s, said just walking past the now-empty building regularly reminds her of a painful moment in Smyrna’s history.
“Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘Oh man, that was so demeaning,’ but it was a job,” said Castleberry, 61.
Ms. Castleberry, who is black, said that although segregation had officially ended when she worked there, she and her family, friends and neighbors never felt comfortable going to Aunt Fanny’s house.
Other former employees had better memories.
“Even if it was based on slavery, no one treated us like slaves, and it’s part of history,” said Jo Ann Trimble, who worked at Aunt Fanny’s for 19 years. “I’ll be 75 this year and I’ve done all kinds of work, and that’s the only job I’ve ever loved.”
Mrs. Trimble supported her children with her salary and tips from Aunt Fanny. Her sisters, children, aunts and cousins also worked there at different points. The fact that the restaurant has helped many Black Smyrna residents build their lives is reason enough to save the building, she said, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
Smyrna, a city of about 56,000 people, is 46 percent white and 33 percent black. In 2017, Ms. Blackburn became the first and only Black woman to serve on the City Council. She and others working to save Aunt Fanny said the project gave the community a chance to confront the racism that existed within her while also honoring a black woman who helped build her community.
More than 70 years after her death in 1949, very little is known about Fanny Williams beyond her role as the restaurant’s namesake and cook. Local investigators believe she made financial contributions to African-Americans in the region, donating to Wheat Street Baptist Church, an African-American church in Atlanta, and raising money for Marietta’s first black hospital.
Activists are working to locate Ms. Williams’s grave in the city’s South View Cemetery. They have plans to tell her story in schools and are holding a design contest to reinvent the cabin.
Turning the building into a welcome center, museum or culinary school for Southern food, her supporters said, would be a way to honor her.
“We don’t have a permanent structure that honors our history in Smyrna,” said Shaun Martin, a black architect who has been studying the cabin for years. “Aunt Fanny’s cabin could be a place where all Black Smyrnites could celebrate in a space that is reclaimed to give us the dignity that was stolen from us for decades.”
City Council members and other residents who wanted the building gone said the city could commemorate Ms. Williams in other ways.
“Why don’t we honor her by putting a photo of her in a museum? We can teach kids about it or build a statue,” said Bernice Livsey, a black resident. “Anything is better than keeping this little house and saying it’s in honor of her.”
The restaurant was originally created as a store by Isoline Campbell McKenna, the daughter of a wealthy white family for whom Mrs. Williams worked. It changed hands over the years — outliving Mrs. Williams by four decades — and hasn’t been operated as a restaurant since 1992. The building has been in the city’s possession since 1997, when the government saved it from demolition. by developers. In recent months, it has been cordoned off with yellow caution tape, deemed unsafe by the city.
In December, city officials said the building would be destroyed if no one came up with a proposal and the money to move it. Last week, the City Council accepted an offer from the owners of a nearby cattle farm to move the cabin there and honor Ms. Williams with a plaque.
Ms. Castleberry said that while she hoped the building would be torn down, she was relieved that it was moved out of town and that she and others didn’t have to see it every day.
For those who wanted to preserve the building but also keep it in Smyrna, the result was only a partial victory. Susan Wilkinson, a white City Council member, said the community had only just begun to learn about Ms. Williams and the value of educating residents about her legacy.
At a recent council meeting, Ms. Wilkinson argued that mission would now be more difficult. “How do we preserve history when physical space no longer exists?”