Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin


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.


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. According to a newspaper report in 1977 the restaurant’s decor included framed advertisements for slaves.

The restaurant’s third owner, George “Pongo” Poole, continued the song and dance 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.


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


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

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

  1. Anonymous

    As a boy from the North, I visited a psychopathic relative who had moved to Atlanta. It was around 1970. I was shocked at the overt racism even at that tender age. The boys who held the menus around their necks were about my age. I was too young to legally work at that age: why were they working? The boys sounded like zombies as they monotonously read the menus aloud.

    The food was not really that remarkable — mostly deep-fried, high fat stuff, what we now call “comfort food”. At around that age, I also visited a creole restaurant: now that was memorable food (including banana flambé)!

    My psychopathic relative also took me to another monument to the Lost Cause of the Confederacy (i.e. white racism), Stone Mountain.

  2. Anonymous

    I went to Aunt Fanny’s for dinner taken by a customer in the 80s. To be honest as a liberal Californian I was horrified. I couldn’t actually believe the whole thing. One trip was enough.

  3. Ce Edgerton

    A wonderful restaurant and most delicious food ever. I was a young teenager when we moved to Atlanta and my family found Aunt Fannie’s Cabin… We had many delicious meals and enjoyed the people who came there. The people who worked were so kind and gracious, never saw or heard any negative comments to anyone there. Did enjoy seeing Hollywood stars come like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford… Would love those delicious recipes. Was there ever a Cookbook?

  4. Gary

    I worked in Mr Poole’s other restaurant investment, ‘Paces River Crossing’ fine dining in Vinings on the Chattahoochie river in 1980. Our kitchen crew was black, headed by two brothers as chefs who started at Aunt Fanny’s. They told me stories of closed-circuit security cameras and drug-sniffing dogs in the ‘Cabin’s’ locker room. My favorite memory of George was finding him in front of Aunt Fanny’s on mother’s day, directing traffic on the busiest restaurant day of the year. He was dressed in a suit, appeared to be inebriated, and held a quart bottle of whiskey. Shoutout to Ned and Gina Stevens, who worked at the restaurant as well as Poole Insurance in Smyrna.

  5. David Coley

    My Lord. I grew up eating at Aunt Fanny’s and later took my children there to absorb the old south. My children loved the restaurant, the food, and the black servers that were so kind to my family. Nobody displayed hard feelings. We all shared each other’s loving kindness. Myself and my children have fond and lasting memories of this past restaurant, but alas, it’s gone with the wind.

  6. Dutch Canine

    I went to aunt Fanny’s in 1980 when visiting the south. I am from California and the place made me very uncomfortable. I was shocked by the African-American workers who were dressed like Mammys and I was really shocked and hurt when a young African-American boy came up to our table and stuck his head in the menu chalkboard and recited the menu. To this day almost 40 years later still bothers me .

  7. Jeff adams

    I’m 60 years old and worked there at age 15 washing dishes. At that time myself and one coworker where the only whites in the kitchen. On our dinner break the food was free and we had to eat at a table in the back of the kitchen. Not sure but I think I was payed a $1.20 an hour, plenty of money back then. Good old days!

  8. Anonymous

    Went there with my then 5-6 y.o. daughter and family. Never had an experience like it…The waitress not only served my daughter, but cut her helping into bite size pieces so that we, her parents, could enjoy our meal.

  9. Gary

    I remember going there when I was about 11 or 12 years old in 1970 or 71. I remember walking to our family table and the floor was uneven and very old. A young waiter came to the table and started singing the menu. I remember that felt weird to me and I told him he did not have to do that, I could read it. He told me that it was Ok, that was his job. I let him continue but did not care for it.
    One thing I remember is that the food was awesome, like someone stated earlier, the chicken was out of this world. One of the better meals I have ever had in my life.
    I understand why it is not around anymore, but to me as a young child it left a impression on me about human rights. I am glad I got to witness that and to be able to see how it was in the past and how far we have come in in this world.

  10. David Spillman

    Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was an excellent restaurant. It did not demean black people, but provided a fantasy, like a ride at Disney World. No one who went there imagined that it was a true re-creation of the antebellum south. It was not at all a hangout for racists. I would bet that before the Civil Rights Act a much higher percentage of the whites who went there were in favor of integration than in the population at large. It was never a target of demonstrations.
    I was born in 1949 in Atlanta and saw all the ugliness of segregation and racism. But to use Aunt Fanny’s Cabin as an example of racism is ridiculous. EVERYBODY went to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin because it was one of the finest restaurants in Atlanta.

    • But isn’t it interesting that recreating plantation life is the kind of fantasy that only white folks seem to have?

      • Couldn’t agree more, Jan. Plantation fantasies, creating romantic stories about slavery and the good old days when the blacks lived to serve…fantasy. The distorted faces in caricature of other human beings thought to be less than… Just because there were no protests does not mean it was acceptable. The climate was such that most black folk kept their opinions to themselves lest they be harmed. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Anonymous

      Umm Fantasy David Spillman? Black people weren’t even allowed to eat at this restaurant only work and cook all of that fried chicken that you loved so much and the Black workers couldn’t even use the front door like civilized human beings they had to use the back door. And how do I know all of this? Because my Great Aunt fried your chicken, my Great – Grandmother checked your coats and minks, and Grand Father mixed your drinks.

      I am sure it was a great place to dine and entertain full of people only of one race yep you’re right that is fantasy.

  11. JDJ

    I will NEVER forget the wonderful experience when I visited there. The food was excellent BUT the entertainment was so much fun to watch. No doubt all the workers truly enjoyed what they did. This is a part of history that I wish could continue because is was special for all. It was fun to look at all the pictures on the walls. I have a few of Aunt Fannys’ recipes. Cherished them so and are passing down rob my children, giving her all the credit!!!!!

    Thank you to whoever took the time to keep her memory alive and I pray our younger generation will be taught this part of history that truly was so special!!!

    • I’d love to hear from some of the workers.

    • Jane Draughon Becker

      We took all our customers to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin and nearly all counted it among their favorite restaurants. From the north, south east and west, they all begged for a return trip. The reason the servers were happy is they served wonderful food and they were so happy to receive decent wages from people who appreciated their work.

  12. Anonymous

    I loved Aunt Fanny’s so much … we had our rehearsal dinner there!

  13. G. Fulton

    The recent events a la Charlottesville remind me that unfortunately willful ignorance is enjoying an unwelcome comeback. As a white Catholic boy in coastal Carolina I remember seeing a smouldering cross one Sunday morning during our long drive to the nearest church in Whiteville and the awkward social position that I occupied.

  14. 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!

    • I love fried chicken too, but as a historian I value truth about the past more.

    • Lori

      Of course it matters if you are Black or white. White people (I am one) have not been brought up to understand the experience of Black people. Black people, though, have to understand whites – their lives depend on it. I find it useful to just listen and not assume anything about how Black people think or feel, to not, especially, assume that they see things the same way whites do. Very, very few people of color would EVER say that race “doesn’t matter.” It matters every day for them. One way it matters is that the outward appearance they show to whites may not at all reflect what they believe or feel inside. It can be too dangerous or exhausting to reveal their true beliefs.

  15. 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.

    • Lynn

      Do you know where I can find the squash casserole recipe?

      • I have a great one we fix all of the time.

      • Keith M

        Right here. My best friend from high school got it from one of the servers when he ate there at about age 12. When the server came to the table he told her that he didn’t like (or want) squash. She said “you’ll like my squash honey” and he did. She wrote down the recipe and gave it to his dad before they left and he shared it with me in college when we shared a house together. I too didn’t think I liked squash until he first made it & shared that story. I’ve been making it for family gatherings for almost 40 years and everyone always loves it. Reach out if you’d like a copy. Happy to share the love.

      • As to the Squash Casserole recipe; I haven’t seen the one Aunt Fanny used, but my wife makes a killer one and it is so simple. Coarsely cut up the Yellow Squash and a large Yellow Onion boil them in some water until tender, but not too soft. Drain the water, add a stick of butter, an egg and a cup of cracker meal, salt and pepper and a little grated Sharp Cheddar cheese. It will be quite bland w/o the salt. You may want to add the egg last or let it cool some. You don’t want to cook the egg right off. Stir it all up, pour it into a greased baking dish, deeper is better than shallow, cover with a generous layer of Cheddar Cheese, I prefer Sharp. Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and the cheese starts to brown. 30-45 minutes, and let sit for 10-15 minutes to settle. Really easy and very good.

  16. 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?

    • SJ

      You’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant of this ilk in today’s Atlanta; and one can wonder why you would want to.

    • Jane Draughon Becker

      That squash was about the best ever! Would love the recipe. There is a place in Decatur, downhill from the Courthouse, that is pretty good, can’t remember the name, but don’t confuse it with Mary Macs. I’m always embarrassed that so many people think their food is “Southern cooking”

  17. 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?

      • G. Fulton

        This weird fever dream of a place was real-!?!? I went there as a four year-old abt 1969. Saw a PBS documentary abt Walt Disney and the segment on The Song of the South elicited a recovered memory of a restaurant with a wacky theme of the aunt jemima servers in a log cabin. Thank goodness that this place is no more. It seemed inappropriate to me even though I was just a kid. Probably picked up on the subconscious discomfort around me.
        Wow…some of you folks got issues.
        Best yardbird I ever tasted was at a cinderblock walk up on a back road outside of Bladenboro, NC. where you took it home or ate it at picnic tables.
        The lady who operated it was in a wheel chair and her husband had made the place so she could run it by herself. I spent my hard earned money from yard mowing. Rode my bike the couple of miles for that fried chicken. Miss it terrible.

  18. 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.

  19. 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…

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

  21. 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.

  22. 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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