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.
It 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”?
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
Update regarding comments: From now on I will approve only thoughtful comments that address the theme of this blog post which is the restaurant’s portrayal of history and how that shaped the roles available to Black staff. I will not approve comments that assert that everyone loved working there or that rave about the fried chicken. I have already held some back for these reasons — along with some hate comments — but now it is my policy. March 5, 2021
December 16, 2021 update: The remaining Aunt Fanny’s Cabin is going to be torn down! Thanks to “MadamC” for sending this link to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story.
97 responses to “Famous in its day: Aunt Fanny’s Cabin”
Good article. I ate at Aunt Fannys with my family as a teenager, and I vaguely recall being taken back by plantation theme. More than 50 years later I view Aunt Fannys of 1960s as a successful but shameful attempt to profit off sentiment for Jim Crow South.
My wife recently came upon an old Kodaslide in an auction, and it came with about a dozen slides. One of them features a black boy with a wooden yoke around his neck, with the words, “Welcome to Aunt Fanny’s!”
I’ve digitized a select few of them, and would like to offer copies to you, for inclusion on this post. I feel they have historical significance, and your post is the only story I could find on the web about Aunt Fanny’s.
Let me know if you’re interested, and take care,
Hello David, Very good of you to offer your scans. I would definitely like to see them. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org .
I’d love to see those!
Would love to see the pictures!!
I too, would like to see those. ‘Joepiccaso53@gmail.com’
I would love to see them, I’m white and worked there as a dishwasher as a young teenager.
I would LOVE to see those photos. I ate there 1x when I had just moved to Atlanta. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Shameful is right. Black children about 7-10 came out with a black chalkboard menu around their neck with the menu on it. It still disgusts me.
I remember Aunt Fanny’s Cabin from when as a child I lived down the hill behind the restaurant on Inverness Rd which ran parallel to Spring St. we lived in Smyrna around 1960 – 1964, then we were transferred to California s the Vietnam War started up.
We ate there a few times but we couldn’t afford to eat out often with a family of seven on an enlisted military salary for my dad.
Behind Aunt Fanny’s there were sharecropper cabins where black families lived in abject poverty. Our family would take clothes to the families as we were a family of five kids with lots of clothes we grew out of.
We also used to wade across the creek and hike up the field to those cabins and sometimes play with the kids our age. There was tension when we showed up as the older kids certainly had been the exposed to the racism that was all too common then. We learned to keep to our path near the cabins on our way to the old Boys Scout camp, Camp Byrd Adam’s (now the Cumberland Mall).
What I remember most was the field next to those cabins where the sharecroppers raised their crops to feed their families. That field was the site of an occasional Klan meeting and I remember well the concern my parents had for the safety of the black families hiding in their cabins.
I have two tall glasses in my cabinet of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin that are a reminder of my time in Smyrna.
I fondly remember the fried chicken, the Smithfield ham, grits with red eye gravy, collard greens etc. that bring back strong memories of my childhood. But I will always remember the staff working there with their children, many of whom lived in those decrepit shacks behind the restaurant, and what those families had to endure.
Regard to all.
That’s a good memory! Thanks for sharing it. It a piece of history.
Rennovate, this, Racist, Jim Crow – Slave Restaurant, into a Building, which would Benefit, and Educate Children. Rename this NEW, State of the Art, Center: “The Fannie Williams Center, for Children.”
The Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin is being lead in part by members of the NAACP and the SCLC. Your idea is welcomed. There is such a wonderful opportunity to talk about privilege, poverty, race, gender, ingenuity, resilience, diversity, reconciliation, local history and how those things converged to bring together people who were simply trying to help themselves and others during a difficult period of our history. Anger about the possible destruction of the cabin has energized whites and Blacks, Conservatives and Liberals. The best monument to Fanny Williams is the cabin.
In the early 60’s my family lived comfortably in Decatur Ga. I was five in 1960 and my guess is I first saw Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in about 1963. I was a young boy and one must remember that in those days, segregation of Blacks and Whites was still ongoing. As a child, I was unable to understand how this was allowed or even existed and today I am doubly troubled and perplexed. But it was real. Recalling Aunt Fanny’s Cabin has to be mostly related to the food. Never had I been to a restaurant that served the same food I got at my mother’s table or her mother’s in Ky. And to this day I am afraid since my family is gone, these incredible foods are now gone to me completely. When I was at this location it must have been winter because all around the inside of the dining area there were multiple old fashioned heaters sitting alone behind a barricade of ropes to keep people away. They may have been wood burning stoves. It has been so long ago. I know for sure there was saw dust on the floors and the atmosphere was insanely delightful. The people working there were most gracious and if there were strife in the air at all, I was too young to know. I never felt this idea degraded anyone at any time since the idea that ONLY Black people seem to run the place, it was in fact Black’s sharing their culture and food and it was fantastic. It is a beloved memory for me. If one went to an Italian or Greek Restaurant, would not one be expected to possibly be served by Italians and Greeks as authentic atmosphere and food? My memory of this place is very old and I have always thought for people to get a real feel of REAL southern food, this place was THE PLACE to have that. I’d be thrilled to go back and experience it again.
I can see that your comment is meant to address the issue, but I have to disagree with a few points you make. As for Italian and Greek restaurants, it’s more than likely that the owners of such restaurants have Italian or Greek heritage. But the owners of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin were not African Americans. And if it had been a Black-owned restaurant I cannot possibly imagine it would have had a plantation/slavery theme. As for the staff being pleasant and gracious, it is well-known that restaurant staff universally try hard to treat guests well as that is key to keeping their jobs and making tips — which in fact constitute the bulk of their earnings.
With respect, I never saw a PLANTATION/SLAVERY motif. I saw ONLY BLACKS running a restaurant and serving the food which represented a southern charm of food and hospitality. I saw Blacks putting forth what was real when it came to eating and dining in the south. I can not imagine why the owners must be black for it not to be racist. The Black folk from that era and before had a charm and finesse that was perpetuated in that scene that was EXACTLY like it was for real. I commented I ate the same exact foods at my home and my grandmother’s home. The essence of the charm is so many of these dishes are southern and this is how blacks prepared and dined. I dont see a racist theme at all. I was extremely aware of racial issues since the idiot states were segregated. I saw only a style of culture that was being shared and that the owners were white has no merit for argument. Whether run and owned by blacks or whites, I think it would have been the same. Don’t forget, AUNT JEMIMAH was real. She actually became a millionaire. And her theme came from the same time period as slavery. But just because slavery existed, does not mean every has to be tainted with that concept. The fact is, the Black folks had something to share. It was marketable and I think it would have been the same regardless of owners. The theme was local. It was of value because it was some of the nice things of those times that people paid money to sit in.
The smiling Black cook who is so happy to cook for her white people has been a popular motif in the white imagination and in advertising for decades. As for the “real” Aunt Jemima, I don’t know where this idea is coming from, but it is certainly false. Of course there were plenty of Black women cooks (one of the few occupations they could get hired for), if that is what you mean. But the Aunt Jemima who ended up on the Quaker Oats pancake box, though modeled by various living women, was fictitious. The very first “Aunt Jemima” was hired in the late 19th century by an earlier pancake mix company who created the mythical story of Aunt Jemima and who hired a real woman — a middle-aged hotel maid in Chicago named Nancy Green — to play Aunt Jemima and cook pancakes at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. She very definitely never became a millionaire (or any kind of rich), and was killed in an auto accident in 1923. The company that hired her also created a booklet that told the story of Aunt Jemima, which was totally made up. In the mid 1920s Quaker Oats acquired the pancake mix and used various models through the years to pose for the Aunt Jemimas that appeared on the boxes. Almost from the start, Black Americans objected to the portrayal as degrading.
Excellent summary history of what has been a landmark in its time. I was a teenager from South Florida, visiting the restaurant with my family at the invitation of our local friends. The food was amazing (and the squash casserole remains in our family holiday meal tradition since then). But I must admit I – and my brothers felt very uncomfortable when a boy about our age or younger appeared with the menu board tied to his neck and he sang the recipe to us. Thank you for publishing this. The good memories of the meal live on in the recipes even as the bad memories cannot and should not be erased.
Reading this after a conversation with my mother who was raised in Smyrna. She remembers going on a date here and crying the whole time, never going back.
As a young person still living in Smyrna, and proudly marching in the Black Lives Matter March across the street last June, is the name of the establishment offensive? The City of Smyrna should do more to recognize Fanny Williams.
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I remember eating there in the 1980’s. Being a white U.S history teacher from Detroit, I couldn’t believe all the Black and White patrons that lined up for a long time to get in. I remember the young Black “menu“ children with the menus around their necks. Today I’m aghast that my family ate there. I am now 76 years old and reading the book ”Driving While Black.” Thank God some things have changed!
I came to this page because I recently acquired a postcard from Aunt Fanny’s. (I’m a postcard collector interested in our country’s racial history.) The front of the card is a slave auction notice. The back ID’s Aunt Fanny’s Cabin with the quote, “Save your Confederate money. The South shall rise again.” As a white New Yorker, I was appalled – though not surprised – that such an establishment could exist in the late 1940s – early 50s. I’m even more appalled at how many commenters here feel it was ok, all in good fun, sheer fantasy. Okay b/c the pay was good, the staff loyal, the fried chicken yummy. Consider: Would it be ok for Germans to have a Holocaust-themed restaurant, with Jewish children in striped pajamas singing a menu, surrounded by Nazi flags and memorabilia? This is not a far-fetched analogy. Slavery was a holocaust for African Americans. The very existence of this “entertaining” restaurant, and the comments here blaming “political correctness” for its demise is proof of white racial blindness… Thank you very much for this blog post.
Not a far-fetched analogy at all.
You are so right Marilyn. I was transferred to Atlanta in 1980. I was born and raised in New Jersey and managed our New York City Sales Office. I was a guest of others at the restaurant. Obviously, I never heard of Aunt Fanny’s. After a few moments, I was offended by the blatant racist, pro slavery environment. I said goodbye to the other guests and left as fast as possible. There is no place for white supremacy in any capacity. Thank you for the accurate comparison.
Very well said Marilyn Stern! I was amazed at one poster’s spelling of Aunt Jemima as AUNT JEMIMAH. This poster didn’t even care enough to research Aunt Jemima but chose to use her as a “hallelujah praise” in defense of young Black boys wearing menu boards around their neck to entertain the paying White guests of Aunt Fanny’s.
There’s an update about Aunt Fanny’s: Jan I sent you an email with a link.
I miss AFC. You can get their Squash Casserole (when squash is in season) fro Ted’s Montana Grill. I’m told they purchased AFC recipe for the last owners. And it tastes GREAT! They make it to a tee!! Enough of my bragging. I’d do miss this place. The food was great and loved the entertainment. Jr. made the best biscuit’s as well. God Rest AFC.
Please preserve our history.
Remember eating here first while I was in Atlanta for an Internal Revenue training school around 1978 – 1979. Such a memory. That is the only time I can remember the young guy coming to the table with the board on his neck as I was with a large group of people. I remember “Southern Fried Chicken”, some brand of “Country Ham’–probably ‘Smithfield (?} . The food was so good that whenever I was in Atlanta traveling through this was one restaurant I wanted to return to. I was able to do so a few more times. I had forgotten about the lady on the porch–but yes I think that was correct. There was entertainment during the meal. I remember a good black female singer and a black older man that played the piano while she was singing. Seems as the songs were partly from Stephen Foster days and other patriotic songs. Very enjoyable. Food was always good and more than one could eat–yes, it was good Southern food and the vegetables were served at the table out of the skillet separately. One could always count on taking some home. In those days no one thought of any thing that seemed racial or degrading–just a touch of the past. It was a landmark that I will always be glad I experienced and will be able to have fond memories of.
Yes, many white people are really good at loving the fried chicken and not noticing anything disturbing or refusing to even consider it seriously.
When my family moved from Amherst, NY (near Lake Erie) to Atlanta in the early 1950s, a business associate of my Father took our family to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin — no doubt thinking the young black “pickaninny” boys singing out the menu would amuse us. I was appalled, even though I was only about 12 at the time, and so were both of my parents. We told our host we wished to leave. In New York we had wonderful friendships with pals we lovingly teased as dagos, wops, polaks, etc., and we were the krauts — never any racial strife at all, just tight friendships. But to see the very young black boys working — tap dancing while singing out the menu for mostly “white folks” was just intolerable.
In the early 1980’s I was an over-the-top bus driver. The tour group I was driving had Aunt Fanny’s Cabin as one of their stops for dinner. It was a very busy place with 2 or 3 other tour busses there. I was invited to sit with the group and although the food was so good, the atmosphere overwhelmed it. There were barefooted black kids singing the menu, wait staff seeming faked submissive demeanor’s, an elderly black lady in a rocking chair whom the wait staff whispered that she would take questions about her life as a slave.
After boarding to leave, the conversation on the bus was of, ‘it’s hard to believe a place like this can get away with, how it presented a restaurant in the south. ‘ The group was white from Houston, TX and seemed embarrassed and entertained at the same time. It was 1983 and I, a 27 year old Mexican-American.
You must have felt weird. Thanks for sharing.
So, having worked there for almost 2 years, I can clearly see how to judge things of the past through a lens of “political correctness” and victimhood.
The people who worked there were very much like a family, George was a jerk, however. The “colored” folks were just regular people who liked having a job and the tips were unreal! (not for me but I saw the wads of cash” I started when I was 15. I am a talker so got to know everyone there. I will tell you, all the older folks who worked there for years were more like mentors to us younger ones. The main chef would tell you 1000 stories, ask about your life and offer advice. The only black vs. white thing I can ever remember being discussed is the white workers could not be seen in the dining area during prime hours. I did just about every job they had in the back. Started with washing dishes, moved to the biscuit maker, to steak cook, and to the “steam table”. I still have a scar on my arm from slicing a huge wheel of cheese for the mac & cheese and my hand slipping off the knife. After 2 years I thought of them as a family regardless of color. Sadly I was fired by George after a 15 hour day in the very hot kitchen, I got a glass of milk without paying for it. He insisted I be fired right then and there. I did become a bit of a legend to the workers as the next day I brought him a gallon of milk and left it on his desk. I was told the condensation got all over his paperwork and ruined it. That still brings a smile to my face 40 years later. For those who want to use this as a “white people being insensitive”, I say, you had to be there. It was a great restaurant because it had great people and great food.
Thank you for that!
Of course, as you must realize, many people of color are experts at getting along, especially when their choices are few.
Went many times, never knew George, but everyone else were like friends.
Thank you for sharing the *real* story, that there was no racism or debasement, and everything was fine … until meddling politicians crashed it all down. How tragic for so many happy diners. How tragic for all the employees feeding their families. Nothing positive came from the better-than-thou hypocritical outrage that pressured the restaurant to capitulate to political correctness — and very very quickly perished as a result.
Thanks for inserting some facts into this discussion! Poole was a jerk, but everyone else loved the place and the employees laughed all the way to the bank.
It’s well known that servers depend on good tips since their hourly pay is so low. It’s also obvious from their stories that servers often have complex feelings about “jollying” customers. I can only imagine that Black servers attending white guests have even more complex feelings, but are still glad to get tips. And, of course, restaurant employees are not the sole arbiters in the matter of whether the restaurant crossed the line in its portrayal of race.
Amazing. . .went there when I was a little girl 🙂 I just found a brochure from the 60s going through old things!!!
Just trying to confirm if Aunt Fanny’s was the restaurant that had autographs and messages written on the walls or on the low ceiling at the front area where the hostess or cashier was. No mention of this, but am sure this was this restaurant.
I was young and was taken back when I watched the young boy with his head peering through a big wooden menu. Then a woman in mammie garb walked around the table with a laddle and metal pail of collard greens. She came around asking if you wanted some greens? I said no thank you, but got a ladle of them wapped on my plate anyway. We were a white family who just looked at it all as just a show based on the old south. Sorry…
You got the right place
I agree. I was 12, from TN. Went with cousins from WI. They were amused. I was appalled. I never forgot that poor guy singing the menu to us. And my bigot brother mocking him for years. It all makes me very I’ll. It isn’t OK. This was systemic racism at its finest. I am glad they closed. Mistreatment should not be profited from.
I have the same memory of a woman asking me if I wanted a certain side and I declining, She then placed it on my plate anyways. The whole experience about the restaurant shocked me. It all seemed so wrong being just 8 years old.
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.
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.
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?
Yes there was a cookbook. The Kitchen and the Cotton Patch copyright 1948 with a 10th printing in 1982. Not sure if you could find one except maybe ebay.
Kitchen and the Cotton Patch was not Aunt Fanny’s cookbook. It is an antebellum cookbook, but not affiliated with Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. There was ONE recipe published from Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, and that was the squash casserole. It can be found online with a quick search. I still make Aunt Fanny’s Squash every Thanksgiving and remember Mr. Willie, Ms. Ida Belle, Ms. Jo Anne, Ms. Mary, Ms. Theresa and all of my Aunt Fanny’s Family; Greg, Connie, Bonnie, Chip and Mark.
I too worked for George Poole at the Cabin for several years. I worked in the kitchen, and I was NOT the only white person there. There were two white cooks; the only black cook I remember was Mr. Wille… and honestly, I think Mr. Wille reaching an age where he was done frying chicken is the real reason the Cabin faded away. Mr. Willie’s hands were magical. I can see him in my mind’s eye plain as day with those GIANT cast iron skillets, wearing his XXXL white chef’s coat making the most perfect friend chicken I’ve ever tasted.
I get how the theme of the restaurant can be off-putting for some, but story of Aunt Fanny’s cabin is really a story about an emancipated black woman who turned into a successful entrepreneur. She used what skills she had to create a restaurant that would endure for over a hundred years. That is remarkable by any standard. Several of the employees of Aunt Fanny’s cabin even at the time of its closing were bloodline descendants of Fanny. (Though I seem to recall her name was not really Fanny, but do not know that for sure, it just comes to mind as I’m writing about it now.) It’s an inspiring success story that shouldn’t be lost in darkness of its origin. That restaurant supported generations of Fanny’s relatives. Several of whom went on to receive college educations paid for in part with money earned from the restaurant.
Over time, the business grew and the business end of the restaurant was sold. It did end up being owned by white men. But those men did not recreate the restaurant. The food served, the songs sang or how they danced, it was all there already. Food, music, dance, these are all ways we express ourselves as a culture, and I think at the time, Fanny was proud of that culture. It allowed her to make people happy. She was free and she was successful. To condemn the expression of her culture and heritage as an outsider looking in I think is missing the point and cheapening the respect and happiness Fanny deserves.
As far as George Poole owning the Cabin, I never saw a drug dog, and I’ve never worked in a kitchen that did NOT have a CCTV on the back door. So people who say the restaurant treated it’s employees poorly strike me as people who have no first hand knowledge of what it was like to work there. There were no chains, no dogs, just a blended family of people who made good food and a good living in one of the very first soul food establishments in Atlanta. Yes, it harkened back to a bleak time in the evolution of the south, and it was owned by a white man, it was not a theme destined to stand the test of time. George Poole may have had his flaws, but he ran that restaurant like a business, period. His own son, Mark, washed dishes there, and I never saw a moment where George (“Pongo” as he was known by friends) mistreated a single employee nor did I ever see an employee walk through the back door without a smile on their face. I can still hear Ms. Ida Belle singing as she strode into the kitchen with a song in her heart. I felt a lot of joy in that kitchen, and truly miss that family.
You are seriously misinformed and evidently did not read my post. I can’t help but wonder what motivated you to write your lengthy comment. Fanny Williams did not own the restaurant. It was begun by the owner of the cabin and the extensive property it was on, Isoline Campbell McKenna. She was a socialite who decorated the cabin with her antiques and spent her winters in Miami. Fanny Williams was her family’s servant. Ms. Williams’ success was as a fundraiser for her church in Atlanta. The objections to the restaurant go far beyond its name, but rather in how it celebrated and misrepresented the past. And, who would consider slave advertisements appropriate for wall decor?
Monell’s in Nashville serves Aunt Fanny’s recipe for squash casserole. The recipe was given to Monell’s owner and they’ve served it since they’ve been open. It’s their most popular side dish and people call to ask if it’s on the menu before they come. Monell’s also serves the best fried chicken in the South, a banner they’ve had since Aunt Fanny’s Cabin closed. I went to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin three times when I was much younger. I remember nothing negative at all, only a very friendly place that had the best fried chicken on earth.
To Georgia, I smell a book in your response. I enjoyed your email and encourage you to expand them
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.
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.
I hope you left huge tips!
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 .
I experienced the same. It was a sinking, disgusting feeling. Even as a small child, I knew it was wrong.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I loved Aunt Fanny’s so much … we had our rehearsal dinner there!
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.
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.
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.
Lori – Of the many varied and interesting comments and recollections posted here, yours may be the most important ones to understand and take away. If more of us (white people) would “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”, we would begin to understand the experience of Black people and what they “believe or feel inside”.
We can’t judge why Blacks were willing to work at Aunt Fanny’s—most likely the opportunity to earn money made them look upon the situation very, very pragmatically, especially if such opportunities were scarce; if so, it served them rather than degraded them. High-minded, principled stands against whitewashing (!) history may be more appropriate for those who can afford to make them. Quite possibly the employees hung up their feelings about their roles along with their aprons and head scarfs at the end of the day.
What’s gross is not just that many whites blithely enjoyed being catered to in this fashion, and for others, all that mattered was the fried chicken—they were products of their time—but that even today, there are people who (as some have posted here) wouldn’t be uncomfortable eating at Aunt Fanny’s. I’d like to see an Uncle Danny’s open up, with white cooks manning cast iron skillets in the hot kitchen and white servers shuckin’ and jivin’ for Black customers and cutting up their children’s food for them. How would whites like to see young white children wearing wooden yoke signboards around their necks and sing-songing menu items to customers all day? Oh wait, it’s OK because customers love the place, the staff get along great, and the food is SO good!
Thank you for stating the heart of the matter so eloquently!
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.
Do you know where I can find the squash casserole recipe?
I have a great one we fix all of the time.
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.
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?
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.
Glad to hear that.
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”
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?
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.
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.
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…
Never heard of the place before. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing your research.
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.
You must be unfamiliar with the racist campaign Carter ran against Carl Sanders in the 70s.
I was not but thank you for pointing it out.
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.
Seems like a new theme has been needed for decades now.