A Georgian restaurant has a racist history. What should it become?

SMYRNA, Ga. — For half a century, celebrities, tourists and local residents have flocked to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a restaurant known as much for its Southern menu as for its depiction of plantation life and racist imagery, where white customers were served by young black waiters with yoke-shaped wooden menu boards hanging 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 mum of color”.

The restaurant closed 30 years ago, but the little white shack itself, 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 move on from its painful past without forgetting its history in the process.

City officials recently offered to demolish the building, arguing that it had fallen into such disrepair that repairing it would be too expensive. The place had been a source of civic discomfort for years, but among those working hardest to save it were members of Smyrna’s black community, who argued that demolishing the shack would erase an essential part local black history. A decision last week to preserve Aunt Fanny’s cabin but move it to a nearby farm gave supporters a chance to grapple with how best to preserve the restaurant’s complicated history – and of Ms Williams herself .

“The city is embarrassed and instead of figuring out how to honor Fanny Williams, they want to erase her,” said Maryline Blackburn, a leader of the Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, a group of black and white residents who worked to preserve the building. “These images of the boys with the menus are atrocious. However, that is part of the story. You cannot change it. You can’t take it off, sweep it under a rug to feel better.

The dispute over Aunt Fanny’s 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 recall their own experiences working at Aunt Fanny’s and seek to learn more about the woman at the center of the debate.

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, which was segregated in its early days, operated from 1941 to 1992, serving fried chicken, mac and cheese, “gen-u-wine Smithfield ham”, and other regional specialties. Blacks worked as cooks, hosts, waiters and busboys. Waiters were forced to sing for white customers. Employee uniforms included pinafore dresses and head coverings that evoked the era 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 area’s plantation history.

Jackie Gleason ate at Aunt Fanny’s. Also Clark Gable.

Some former employees remember the institution with nothing but distaste.

“It doesn’t remind me of anything but racism,” said Roderick McNeal, who worked at Aunt Fanny’s in the summer of 1959. away.”

Lisa Castleberry, who worked there in the 1970s, said just walking past the now vacant building regularly reminded her of a painful period in Smyrna’s history.

“Now that I’m older I’m like, ‘Oh man, that was so demeaning’, but it was a job,” said Ms Castleberry, who is 61.

Ms Castleberry, who is black, said that although segregation was officially over by the time she worked there, she and her family, friends and neighbors never felt comfortable going to Aunt Fanny’s.

Other former employees had better memories.

“Even though it was based on the slave era, no one treated us like slaves, and that’s part of the story,” said Jo Ann Trimble, who worked at Aunt Fanny’s for 19 years. “I’ll be 75 this year and I’ve done every type of job, and it’s the only job I’ve ever loved.”

Mrs. Trimble supported her children with her salary and tips from Aunt Fanny. His sisters, children, aunts and cousins ​​also worked there at different times. 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 feel uncomfortable.

Smyrna, a city of about 56,000 people, is about 46% white and 33% black. In 2017, Ms Blackburn became the first and only black woman to serve on city council. She and others working to save Aunt Fanny said the project offered the community an opportunity to confront the racism that existed within it while 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 researchers believe she made financial contributions to African Americans in the area, donating to Wheat Street Baptist Church, an African American church in Atlanta, and raising money for the first hospital. black from Marietta.

Activists are working to locate Ms Williams’ grave in the city’s South View Cemetery. They plan to tell his story in schools and hold a design competition to reinvent the cabin.

Turning the building into a visitor center, museum or culinary school for Southern cuisine, supporters said, would be one way to honor him.

“We don’t have a permanent structure that honors our history in Smyrna,” said Shaun Martin, a black architect who has studied the cabin for years. “Aunt Fanny’s cabin could be a place where all Black Smyrnites could be celebrated in reclaimed space to give us the dignity they stole from us for decades.”

City council members and other residents who wanted the building gone said the city could commemorate Ms Williams in another way.

“Why not pay homage to her by putting a photo of her in a museum? We can tell the kids about her or build a statue,” said Bernice Livsey, a black resident. “Anything is better than keeping this little house and saying it’s to honor it.”

The restaurant was originally started as a shop by Isoline Campbell McKenna, the daughter of a wealthy white family for whom Ms Williams worked. It has changed hands over the years – surviving Ms Williams by four decades – and hasn’t operated as a restaurant since 1992. The building has been owned by the city since 1997, when the government saved it from demolition by the promoters. 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 forward 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 hut there and honor Ms Williams with a plaque.

Ms Castleberry said that although she had hoped the building would be demolished, she was relieved that it was moved from the city and that she and others did not have to see it on a daily basis.

For those who wanted to preserve the building but also keep it in Smyrna, the result was only a partial victory. Susan Wilkinson, a city council member who is white, said the community was just beginning to learn more about Ms Williams and the value of educating residents about her heritage.

At a recent board meeting, Ms. Wilkinson argued that this mission would now be more difficult. “How to preserve history when the physical space is no longer there?”

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