Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

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Famous, but also infamous in its day because of how it portrayed the South before the Civil War and Emancipation as a world of smiling slaves who loved serving the kindly white people who held them captive.

Beyond its costumed mammy servers and the Black children who boisterously recited the menu, sang, danced, and proclaimed the South would rise again, the proprietors of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant in Smyrna GA created a legend regarding its name and building which appropriated and falsified the life story of a living woman.

According to an oft-told tale, the restaurant’s core building was a relic of the Civil War era and the home of a former slave, Fanny Williams, who spent her last years sitting on the restaurant’s front porch telling of the war and its aftermath. At her death in 1949 legend had it that she was very old, her age ranging from somewhere in the 90s to much older. She was “about 112 years old” when she died, restaurant owner George Poole told a reporter in 1982.

Indeed there was a real Afro-American woman named Fanny Williams. However it was revealed after the restaurant closed in the 1990s that she was born after the Civil War and had never lived in the cabin, which itself dated from the 1890s. Poole’s estimate of her 112 years had been preposterous – only a few dozen people worldwide were known to have attained that age — but newspapers had been much inclined to lax reporting when it came to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. Far from an ancient rural yokel, she was about 81 when she died, a city dweller in Atlanta, and active in raising funds for her church there. How willingly or why she adopted the ex-slave persona is unknown.

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Fanny Williams was a servant to a wealthy Atlanta family named Campbell. She was in service to socialite Isoline Campbell McKenna in 1941 when McKenna opened a tea room-style eating place on family property near their summer home. She named it Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, hosting ladies’ luncheons, bridge clubs, and bridal showers. She leased the business in 1947, selling it to lessees Harvey Hester [pictured above instructing his employees] and Marjorie Bowman in 1954. They elaborated the Aunt Fanny legend, enacted in what are known as “Blacks in Blackface” scenes where cheerful servers sang, danced, and even joined patrons in singing “Dixie,” the anthem of the ante-bellum South. The restaurant’s third owner, George “Pongo” Poole, continued the tradition into the 1980s, although when a cabaret tax was demanded, dancing by the Black boys stopped. However, they continued to carry yoke-style wooden menu boards around their necks while they shouted out the menu offerings [child waiter shown below in 1949 before the menu boards were used].

The restaurant drew Georgians from Smyrna and Atlanta, as well as visitors from all over the country and the world. It was a tour bus stop, and a favorite of President Jimmy Carter and conventioneers such as members of the American Bar Association. Those who complained about the roles played by Black servers and the implicit celebration of slavery were characterized by proprietors as “Northern liberals,” though there is evidence that some Southerners and Westerners were also critical.

auntfannyscabin1949lifewoodburysoapadvIt became standard procedure when reporting on the restaurant to quote Poole about how his staff loved working there and was part of a big happy family. When interviewed, Black women servers would invariably attest to their love of the job and how they never felt insulted. To what extent this was a genuine expression on their parts is unknown.

What is known is that many of the elements that characterized the restaurant had been subjects of contention for a long time. A 1964 survey by Wayne State University researchers showed that most Black respondents found terms such as Sambo, Aunt Jemima, auntie, mammy, spook, and darkie offensive. Many white people, especially in the South, did not understand this, and thought that calling an elderly Black man or woman Uncle or Aunt/ie was a mark of respect. As for “mammy,” despite the affection many Southerners felt for the Black women who had cared for them when they were children, it had been rejected by many Americans long before the 1960s. In the 1920s the National Organization of Colored Women’s Clubs mobilized massive opposition to a Washington, D.C. memorial to mammies proposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity,” said the club women’s official statement in 1923.

Georgia Senator Julian Bond said in the 1980s that he had little attraction to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin but could imagine that younger Blacks might find it “cute.” A journalist with the Atlanta Constitution who visited the restaurant in 1984 reported that he saw numerous Black patrons.

So, what’s the story? Did the degree of tolerance or even liking that some Black people expressed for Aunt Fanny’s Cabin mean that it held no offense to people of color? Did it mean that those who complained were thin-skinned trouble makers with an elevated sense of their own dignity who couldn’t take a joke? Did it mean, as a 1982 Washington Post story argued, that the years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were part of a post-racial age in which slavery, forced segregation, and lynching had largely ended and any remaining blatant prejudice was due simply to a few “obnoxious rednecks”?

mammy1959milwaukeeI think not.

I cannot be absolutely certain that there has never been a Black-owned restaurant that celebrated plantations, “pickaninnies,” and “mammies” of the Old South, but all the mammy restaurants I know of, mostly in business from the 1930s to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, were white-owned. And dressing Black women servers in mammy get-ups was so commonplace back then that at times I’ve wondered if wearing that costume was a waitressing job requirement for dark-skinned women.

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After the death of owner George Poole, Aunt Fanny’s Cabin struggled and subsequent owners could not revive it. It closed for the last time in 1994, sometimes recalled as partly a victim of “political correctness.” Based on the understanding that the original portion of the restaurant’s building had been a slave cabin, the city of Smyrna proposed to move it downtown to be used as a visitors’ center. After a historic structures report revealed it dated from the 1890s, the city decided to go ahead with the project on the grounds that the restaurant had itself been a significant part of the city’s history.

© Jan Whitaker, 2016

15 Comments

Filed under odd buildings, Offbeat places, popular restaurants, racism, restaurant decor, uniforms & costumes

15 responses to “Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

  1. Anonymous

    I’m 79 years old and went to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in the 1960’s. I had the best chicken I ever had in my life (then and now) and am sad to see it no longer there. I won’t say if I am black or white, or otherwise…because it doesn’t matter. I went there for the chicken. It’s sad in our world today that political correctness has made marks on history. Those of us who grew up in those times accepted them and the growth as progress. I don’t agree with the picking apart of everything that everyone says…but that’s the sign of these times…and the growing pains of today…just as they were in those days. But none of that has to do with chicken…oh how I miss that chicken…I wish someone knew how to make it like that! And everything else that went with it. Truly an American treasure to be remembered!

  2. Anonymous

    I just pulled the aunt fanny’s bake squash recipe out of my file as our yellow squash are just coming in from the garden and i will make it today for myself and some neighbors live in atlanta many years ago and went to aunt fanny’s cabin for several years nothing but good times and good food enjoyed.

  3. Anonymous

    Went there in the late ’80’s taken by a fellow employee (John Dees) while on customer visits in Atlanta. Seemed like it took forever to get there but the atmosphere, food and experience was well worth it. So glad I had this experience. My son lives in Atlanta and I looked this up for a future visit but found it closed in 1994. Is there any place similar in the Atlanta area?

  4. Anonymous

    As a native Atlantan, my family frequented Aunt Fanny’s Cabin many times throughout my growing up years. This was especially true with out-of-town guests as something unique. Even more impressive than the mouth-watering fried chicken was the many autographed pictures displayed of stars/celebrities who had likewise eaten there, well known to all. Being born in the late 40’s, I sadly did not recognize any form of disrespect or shame as I lived in a segregated world. I remember making a lavish speech as a 5th grader in behalf of the “Yankees,” determined nobody had the right to own another. I also remember my grandmother having daily maids, always very faithful & appreciative of both their job as well as her generosity. The few maids she had remained loyal to her for many years. The last one, in fact, showed up on Sunday following my grandfather’s unexpected death & cooked, cleaned up, washed dishes non-stop all day with neither pay nor my grandmothers knowledge of her presence. She was not only the “colored hired help,” she was a loyal friend. I saw her many years later, when she was no longer required to sit at the back of the bus & we shared some fond remembrances of my early childhood. While intended to associate the atmosphere of this restaurant with slave days, I still have trouble considering it to be anything more or less than a very unique restaurant representing the Old South, which was likewise apparently true for those employed there as the little boys shouting out the menus were precious and the food could not be beat so “Aunt Fanny” really knew her stuff, proud to share her good cookin’ with those who praised it all. We’re past that time of life, I suppose, & while thankful we’re all recognized & treated as equals, I honestly feel the younger generation, both black & white, my own children included, missed out on something special by never experiencing this fond remembrance.

    • And yet . . .
      Why didn’t Aunt Fanny’s dress white women as mammies and hire white children as picaninnies? Wouldn’t that be even more fun?
      And what if a Black-owned restaurant hired white women and children in those roles? Would white people go to such a restaurant?
      How many white women have been faithful servants in Black homes?
      Except as an employee of white people, have you ever known a Black person to celebrate slave days?

  5. Sherry Evans

    Found the recipe for the delicious squash casserole in my recipe box yesterday and reminded me of our dinner there back in the ’80’s. Wanted to know if it was still in existence. Found this article and made the squash for dinner. Thanks for the history, update & pics!! Does anyone know if the little bar or restaurant across the street is still there? We had a drink there before dinner at Aunt Fannys. Everyone was so friendly & helpful, as we were out of towners. We can’t remember its name.

  6. Ginger

    I remember going there as a child, on vacation in Atlanta. It had to be the 60’s…We saw the Braves play, went to Stone Mountain and had dinner at Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. The squash casserole is still a family “comfort” dish…

  7. Never heard of the place before. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing your research.

  8. When I was in college in South Carolina in the 1970s, the Kappa Alpha Order would pay Black boys about 8-12 years old a dollar to run across campus on Robert E. Lee’s birthday carrying Confederate flags. I don’t know when this stopped, but at the time, the boys, who were often the children or grandchildren of people who cooked, cleaned, and did grounds work at the college, apparently saw it as a chance to show off and make money. I suspect it may have been the same for the young workers at Aunt Fanny’s. By the time I was there, a lot of students and faculty saw it as somewhere between an anachronism and a disgrace, though. As a Yankee, I had heard about, but was a little shocked to actually see it at the first college in SC to voluntarily integrate.

    It would be interesting to know how adult Black workers at the restaurant saw this. If Jimmy Carter was a patron, there must have been an element of humor and irony by the last days.

    • Some of the same questions ran through my mind. I can understand why the servers wanted to to work there. It was a second job for most of them evidently and they made good tips. Some were single parents and probably needed the money. They seemed to laugh it off, but still one said her friends asked how she could stand to work there, so it’s clear that not everyone would make that bargain. Quite honestly I was surprised to find that Jimmy Carter went there. It was comfortable for white patrons to conclude that it was all just fun and that the servers thought so too. And maybe they did.

  9. Stuart Miller

    Only in America. I guess the counterpoint to such an establishment would be Aunt Pittypat’s Porch (http://www.pittypatsrestaurant.com/)–a somewhat more benign remnant of Old South theme venues.

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