Photo Credit: TN
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin: Erasure Or Remembrance Of A Georgia Restaurant With A Racist History?
People once traveled from around the world to experience Southern food from Aunt Fanny’s Cabin and now its legacy, laden with painful memories of racism, is a point of contention within the Georgia community.
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a restaurant in Smyrna, Georgia, was known as much for its irresistible Southern cuisine south of the Mason-Dixon area as it was for its racist depiction of plantation life. As of 1992, the restaurant has not been in operation but its dilapidated structure, a ghost of what it was in its heyday, remained to remind and even taunt residents in the area.
Ever since, the Smyrna and surrounding community have been divided on whether Aunt Fanny’s Cabin ought to be upheld and maintained for legacy’s sake, or whether it should be cast away with the racist past it descends from.
The contention lies in the ugly story behind this restaurant’s loveless handling of a painful past for African Americans. The restaurant’s success was not solely based on the famous Smithfield hams, fried chicken and macaroni squash; it had a darker relationship with the wider Black population. When the Campbells, a white family and owners of the restaurant, first turned the two-room cabin into a restaurant, they designed it as a depiction of the Antebellum South.
It was at first an antique mart and tea shop, with a few offerings from Williams’ food preparations. Once visitors took more interest in Williams’ southern cuisine, it became the center-piece of the restaurant: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was born.
With Williams being the face of this new restaurant that evoked a blatant celebration of an oppression that kept Black southerners segregated and dehumanized, the Campbells didn’t stop at the ‘old mammy’ symbolism. Black boys were hired as servers, used to entertain guests and sing the menu to mostly white patrons while wearing wooden menu boards around their necks, according to the Washington Post in 1992.
It attracted many from across the country and the globe. Particularly through the 50s onwards it attracted many celebrities: Ty Cobb, Jackie Gleason, Liberace, James Cagney, Walt Disney, Martha Raye and Susan Hayward, who met her last husband there.
When the Campbells sold the restaurant in 1954 some of the racist tropes and depictions of African American culture and history remained but the menu boys were ‘banned in 1987 when the state labor board invoked child labor laws.‘
Most recently, officials made a decision to preserve Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, but not in its original location. Rather than spending money on rejuvenation, the site will be moved to a nearby farm.
Today, the divided reaction is as centered on the emotional triggers of the physical presence of the restaurant standing in the town as it is on the need to acknowledge and preserve history as it happened. Whether vocalized or not, it is clear that at the forefront of this debate lies the eponymous Aunt Fanny herself, a Southerner by birth who appeared to be a huge part of the small metro Atlanta community.
According to Smyrna historian Mike Terry, Fanny Williams was a pioneering civil rights activist who spoke out passionately against Cobb County’s Ku Klux Klan and helped raise money to build the state’s first all-Black hospital in Marietta. When the restaurant was at its height, Williams was said to be on the porch retelling stories of slavery for mostly white diners. This was a front, as Williams was actually born 3 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
For some, the ongoing fear ever since the restaurant’s demise is that Williams will be erased and shut out of the history for future retelling of life in Georgia.
“The city is embarrassed and instead of figuring out how to honor Fanny Williams, they want to erase her,” shared Maryline Blackburn, a leader of the Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a group of Black and white residents that worked to preserve the building in The New York Times. “Those images of the boys with the menus are atrocious. However, that is a part of history. You can’t change it. You can’t take it away, sweep it under a rug to make yourself feel better about it.”
Others believe that the restaurant is best to be erased from the history of Smyrna, as it does nothing to empower the Black community in the Atlanta region or indeed the country.
“Why would we want to memorialize that, spend money on it, and stick a city of Smyrna sign on it like, ‘This is our history, and we’re proud of it,’” said Councilman Travis Lindley, the task force’s chairman during a November 18 gathering of task force members. “There is nothing to be proud of.”
Lisa Castleberry, who worked there in the 1970s, told The New York Times that simply passing by the now-vacant building regularly reminds her of a painful time in Smyrna’s history. Upon learning of the decision to move the restaurant to a nearby site, Castleberry said that while she had hoped the building would be demolished, she was relieved that it would be moved from the city and she and others would not have to see it daily.
The question remains, do we hold a responsibility to maintain degrading, painful parts of Black history in our cities and towns or do we reclaim and remodel so to create safe spaces that represent progressive societies?