Taking down a mammy complex
Plan to demolish longtime anti-Black restaurant outside Atlanta stirs backlash
When Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was in its heyday, when socialites and celebrities and presidents (at least the one from Plains) flocked to the outskirts of Atlanta to order “genu-wine Smithfield ham” off menu boards fitted around young Black men’s necks, well-placed white residents of Smyrna, Georgia believed Black citizens of the city were glad to sing and dance for them.
Although the blatantly racist restaurant closed in 1992, the former tenant farmer’s home which housed it has sat in the center of downtown—a sawn wood saddlebag dwelling in view of a Publix—since 1997, when the city plucked it from the path of developers to serve as a welcome center. “When Aunt Fanny’s is gone, Smyrna is gone,” a distraught longtime customer told sympathetic city leaders at the time.
But the building now faces imminent demolition following a December vote by the city council to “dispose of” the 130-year-old structure if no one came forward with money to move it. According to those familiar with the decision, well-placed white residents of Smyrna, Georgia believed Black citizens of the city would be glad to see the cabin knocked down.
In both cases, the white folks got it wrong.
“We’re trying to save this little white house for Black history,” said Maryline Blackburn, a leader of The Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, an interracial group rallying to preserve the building as a tribute to the restaurant’s eponymous cook, Fanny Williams, who died in 1949. They have until March 16 to submit a bid or persuade the city to change course.
Blackburn has the distinction of being—so far, anyway—the only Black councilwoman in Smyrna history, having served one term from 2017-19. “They’re saying this cabin is bad for our community; it’s bad for race relations,” she said. “Well, removing that cabin is bad for race relations because [then] you’d have nothing to talk about.”
The City of Smyrna would prefer not to talk about Aunt Fanny’s at all. The only booklet in the local library’s collection that touches on the topic is missing and unaccounted for, according to a librarian.
Still, many area residents believe the discussion galvanized by the cabin’s presence is worth having, even if they don’t agree on its talking points: For every Smyrnite ready to reckon with the lasting brutality of an anti-Black business, there’s another local eager to spin happy yarns about the Jim Crow South.
In some ways, the conflict over what to do about Aunt Fanny’s Cabin echoes the Confederate monument disputes that have unfolded across the South. Yet in the case of those state-sanctioned memorials, it was established historical fact that they were erected by white supremacists for the sole purpose of intimidating Black Americans and challenging their strides toward justice.
The meaning of the Cabin is murkier, since a violently offensive themed restaurant wasn’t its only resident. It was inhabited by sharecroppers before it was Aunt Fanny’s and enlivened by partygoers of all racial backgrounds after it was Aunt Fanny’s. And during the Aunt Fanny’s era, it benefitted enormously from Black labor, starting with the work of Williams.
“Fanny Williams didn’t own Aunt Fanny’s,” Blackburn likes to say. “But she owwwwned it.”
Blackburn’s emphasis conveys her conviction that the restaurant enterprise couldn’t have existed without Williams.
That theory is still unsettled. But what’s clear is sorting out the past and grappling with its contemporary consequences is an exercise bound to become even more wobbly if there isn’t a building to hold on to.
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin dates back to 1941, when, the Atlanta Constitution reported at the time, Isoline Campbell McKenna opened the cabin as an antiques shop and tearoom. The name was inspired by Williams, whom the paper described at the time as “a famous colored mammy who has been in Mrs. McKenna’s family for more than 57 years.”
Williams, the paper reported, “always wears a printed calico dress, a big white apron, and a white bandanna wrapped around her head.”
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was one of many restaurants in the mid-1900s that parlayed the success of Gone with the Wind’s antebellum romance and a century-old white obsession with the “Mammy” caricature of older, large-bodied Black women into a steady flow of customers.
McKenna ran into tax troubles within a few years and sold the restaurant to a pair of promoters who played up the racist angle, but the groundwork had already been laid. In 1944, the Constitution described the restaurant’s specialty as “a real, old-fashioned plantation meal served by genuine darkies.”
Prior to her death in 1949, Williams seems to have served as a greeter at the restaurant, in addition to overseeing the production of jams and jellies. According to the Constitution, “Aunt Fanny belongs to the generation which holds her ‘white people’ in genuine affection and asks nothing more than a smile from ‘Miss Isoline’ to light her pathway.”
But who was Fanny Williams, really?
The public record is spotty. People who have lived in Smyrna for decades say they’ve never come across anyone who knew Williams or claimed to be kin to her, although an obituary in The Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest Black newspaper, cited an unnamed sister from Macon as a survivor.
Nobody has yet turned up a birth certificate, death certificate, or wedding license associated with the woman known across the country for her charisma: It’s possible that “Fanny Williams” wasn’t even the name she used outside of the public eye. The scarcity of facts hasn’t stopped amateur genealogists from patching over the holes in her life story with supposition and speculation, which has left room for people on both sides of the cabin debate to produce interpretations in line with their perspectives.
For instance, members of the Coalition talk frequently about Williams as an exemplar of interracial harmony, even though nothing is known about her relationship with her white employer. Shaun Martin, who leads the Coalition’s online presentations, sees Williams as a pioneering entrepreneur.
“She understood the value of her brand,” Martin told me. “Good, bad, or indifferent, she understood the value of her brand, having one foot in corporate America and the other foot solidly planted in her community.”
It’s a plausible reading, but—again—not a proven one.
The notion that Williams beat white supremacists at their own game by using wages and fame earned at Aunt Fanny’s to advance Black causes is enormously appealing, but it’s hard to follow the money through that storyline.
The Atlanta Constitution reported in 1946 that “her ‘beloved’ white folks,” including McKenna, accompanied her to the groundbreaking at Cobb County Hospital, where Williams was recognized as “the individual who raised the largest amount of money, most of which was contributed by friends who visited the Cabin.” (In those days of segregated restaurants, only ‘friends’ from McKenna’s social circle would have been admitted.)
Still, the funds were collected, and the hospital was built, so it certainly ranks as an achievement. Williams, dressed all in white, was granted the honor of turning over the first shovelful of dirt.
As for her connection to Wheat Street Baptist Church, which she was also rumored to have supported with significant financial gifts, her obituary in The Atlanta Constitution—headlined “Fanny Williams, Aged Negro, Dies”—identified her only as a church member. There are numerous published references to a Mother Fannie Williams who led committees at Wheat Street in the 1940s, but she died on August 23, 1949, months before Williams’ fatal heart attack.
Williams appears in the federal census just once. In 1930, she’s listed as a 62-year-old maid in the home of McKenna’s younger brother, Richard Orme Campbell, who was just a few years removed from an unhappy marriage.
Campbell’s former father-in-law in 1923 left $50 to his “servant, Fannie Ramey,” so it’s possible that’s how Williams came into the Campbell fold, but it’s also possible that lots of Black women working as domestics in the Atlanta area were then named Fanny. (Or, more precisely, Fannie: The other spelling barely appears in city directories between 1920 and 1940.)
Wheat Street Baptist has never opened its records, much to the aggravation of Atlanta archivists. But it’s believed that the woman known as Aunt Fanny was buried in South View Cemetery, also the resting place of Henry “Hank” Aaron, who, incidentally, was among the Cabin’s Black customers following integration.
So far, Coalition members haven’t been able to locate her grave.
“The genealogical problem of trying to trace ancestries and family histories of Black Americans doesn’t end with slavery,” says Micki McElya, a University of Connecticut history professor who wrote Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth Century America. “It’s a persistent quality of a white supremacist state.”
Elaborating on the obstacles that the Coalition has encountered in trying to piece together Williams’ life beyond the character she played for commercial purposes, much as Kentucky native Nancy Green took on the role of Aunt Jemima, McElya said, “Everything that speaks to this woman’s individual story is pushed to the margins so she can be celebrated as an embodiment of a white supremacist stereotype that has done nothing but wreak enormous damage.”
While anti-Black restaurants cropped up around the South in the mid-twentieth century—in Atlanta alone, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin inspired Mammy’s Shanty, Pittypat’s Porch, and Johnny Reb’s Dixieland—they were equally prevalent in places with predominantly white populations. The Coon Chicken Inn got its start in Salt Lake City, Richard’s Restaurant and Slave Market opened in an all-white suburb of Chicago, and Sambo’s was based out of Santa Barbara, California.
What these venues had in common, besides promotional material and service practices that demeaned and denigrated Black Americans, was they all served food. As Naa Oyo A. Kwate concludes in her book, Burgers in Blackface, “Restaurants named after racist epithets insist on their innocence by virtue of the goods they sell. It’s Sambo’s pancakes, after all, not Sambo’s Police Brutality Gun Shop.”
In other words, the link between “good Southern food” and racism wasn’t incidental. Indeed, the long-running celebration of Southern food by white media outlets is as mixed up with “the warped myth of Mammy,” as McElya puts it, as any iconic dish.
“So much of hospitality in this country has been this idea that the slave south represented this Gloriana of refinement and the sort of loving attention of Black people that white people really crave,” McElya says. “As the civil rights movement is working to head on dismantle Jim Crow segregation, this is a place where they know they will be cared for.”
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin finally closed in 1992, outliving its namesake by more than 40 years. The owners at the time, looking to retire, had failed to find new buyers. (A report commissioned by the city in 1997 called it “a victim of too much competition from chains like Cracker Barrel and its more politically-correct interpretation of Southern cooking.”)
But even today, at least among Smyrna old-timers, the memories of the place remain vivid. “It was the best squash casserole and the best cornbread,” recalls Max Bacon, who knew a man named “Willie” as the restaurant’s head cook. “I can remember walking to the back door: Willie always cooked chicken in a big black skillet. He didn’t use a fryer... It was just good Southern food.”
Bacon is a former mayor of Smyrna. In fact, he is the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history and retired in 2019 after 34 years in office. It was Bacon who oversaw the relocation in 1997 of the salvageable portion of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin to its current site alongside the city’s history museum.
At the time, Bacon told the AJC that he was relieved that research had determined the circa-1890 building had never housed enslaved people. “That is just too sensitive an issue and we need to promote a good image for the city,” he said, aware his constituents were still smarting over National Geographic in 1988 describing their hometown as “Redneck Smyrna.”
As Bacon recalled it during a phone interview, there wasn’t any pushback when the city spent $82,000 to acquire and move the building. When I asked about reports of NAACP members protesting the restaurant in the 1980s, he said the group’s concerns were resolved when employees shifted from wearing menu boards to carrying them, a change that contemporaneous news accounts attributed to a Georgia Department of Labor investigation into alleged child labor law violations
Bacon didn’t get to eat at Aunt Fanny’s as often as he would have liked when he was a kid, since it was an expensive night out for a family of six, but he was so fond of the restaurant that he made sure to collect a few souvenirs when the building was being readied for its move downtown.
“I kept a couple of trays and a couple of food stands and I ended up getting the men’s bathroom door which was in a big pile to be thrown away,” Bacon says. “It was painted green, and somebody had hand painted an African American guy smoking a pipe on it. I got it downstairs in my man cave.”
Bacon’s vision for turning the structure into a welcome center never materialized, but it became a popular site for birthday parties, committee meetings, and other community functions. While the city was still renting it out as recently as last year, officials said a 2021 inspection uncovered hazards related to the porch and roof framing that the city couldn’t afford to fix.
“All I can tell you is when I left, it was in good shape,” Bacon says of the building. “It had maintenance all the time. I’m hoping they will not try to tear it down or move it: There’s nothing else downtown named after an African American.”
The city’s current mayor is Derek Norton, who, like Bacon, is white. Some political observers in Smyrna speculate that Norton, a registered lobbyist, came up with the Aunt Fanny’s removal scheme to distract voters from a downtown improvement plan he rammed through council last fall. Or maybe he was trying to win points with Black voters following an election in which he edged out a Black candidate by fewer than 200 votes out of 7,300 votes cast. I wanted to talk with Norton directly, but city spokeswoman Jennifer Bennett denied all my interview requests.
It's obvious the city doesn’t appreciate attention to what Councilman Travis Lindley termed the city’s “painful history” in the AJC. “I think it’s time to start looking forward,” he said. For her part, Bennett suggested I use my time in Smyrna to review an Italian restaurant instead of bothering with Aunt Fanny’s, adding, “We welcome you as a visitor to our community and as a writer with expressed interest in restaurants.”
When I got to Smyrna, I found the welcome only extended so far.
Since the local library in 1998 mounted an exhibit about Aunt Fanny’s, I visited the reference desk to ask if the library had a file on the topic. The librarian said she had to fetch the library director, who emerged from her office to tell me that Bennett had already responded to my “long list of questions” and there was nothing left for me to learn about the restaurant. If I was going to discover anything about the people who worked at Aunt Fanny’s, including Williams, the city had determined I wouldn’t find it there.
On a recent gloomy Sunday afternoon, ten members of The Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin gathered in front of the shipshape building that once housed Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Pastor Eldren D. Morrison of Shaw Temple AME Zion Church offered up a prayer.
“We stand on this ground in front of hallowed space for us.” Directing his supplication skyward, he said, “The work you allowed [Williams] to do in the kitchen allowed her to help establish Wheat Street Baptist Church and the Black hospital and so many other things. We pray for the building to be preserved so children who don’t even know her name know her legacy.”
To keep Fanny Williams at the center of conversations fueled by the building, Blackburn’s coalition is pursuing a full slate of strategies, including weekly Zoomed teach-ins and Sunday gatherings outside the cabin. The goal is to attract enough supporters to join hands and encircle the building, now sealed off with police tape.
While coalition members would love to see the city reup its claim to the cabin, they’re preparing a set of unfunded proposals for its removal, a process they say is costlier than necessary because the city has stipulated that one of its chimneys must be left in place. Because of that requirement, the building has to be dismantled fully before moving.
Twenty miles away, at the South View cemetery, a stroll through the non-serviced section of the historic African American cemetery reveals countless wedges of improvised headstones, mostly concealed beneath grass and dirt. If Williams was even buried here, it’s not known whether her burial place was ever marked.
In the absence of a real grave on which to place bouquets, two recent comments on her findagrave.com page accompanied by virtual flowers sum up the competing views of Williams.
“She’s buried in a public plot, perhaps at her request, so her funds could be donated,” one anonymous contributor wrote in February, leaning into the myth of “Mammy” as a selfless figure who has no physical needs or desires.
“Aunt Fanny was exploited by the owners of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave…they used her and her image to promote horror,” another contributor argued in December, taking Williams’ agency out of the equation.
Without any real evidence of Williams, it becomes very easy to graft any message on to her life story.
And without Aunt Fanny’s Cabin around, it’s likely to become even easier for those in power to decree how the racist restaurant is remembered—if it’s remembered at all.
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