Tag Archives: mammy themes

Name trouble: Aunt Jemima’s

Of all the Black representations found in American white-owned restaurants, the mammy figure has been by far the most common. Many women in the restaurant business of the past have been known as Mama or Mother, but Mammy was reserved for Black women.

The mammy figure, usually grinning broadly in its corporate version, was meant to be a symbol of hospitality universally appreciated by white Americans. Early restaurants using Mammy as part of their name and/or as a visual trademark started appearing in the 1920s in Massachusetts, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida, among other states, with the word Mammy often paired with Shanty, Shack, or Log Cabin. The name and trademark continued in use through the 1970s.

In 1955, probably the best known of all the mammy restaurants opened in Disneyland as Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House, using the sponsorship and trademark of the Quaker Oats Company. The other eating places in Frontierland – among them Pepsi-Cola Golden Horseshoe, Swift’s Chicken Plantation, and Casa de Fritos – also reflected name-brands.

In 1960 Quaker Oats began to franchise Aunt Jemima’s Kitchens, a name variant that signaled wider menu offerings. The first opened in the Chicago suburb of Skokie IL. In 1963 there were 21 in operation in the U.S., plus one each in England and Canada. Among the states, New York led with seven Aunt Jemima’s in the first few years. Pancake restaurants, largely inspired by the high profit potential of pancakes, were the latest food trend in chain eateries at that time, with an estimated 150 around the country. One Aunt Jemima’s franchisee, Pancake Kitchens, Inc., had optimistic plans to open 36 units in the Eastern U.S. I doubt that they were all built, or that the total number of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Houses and Kitchens across the country ever topped 100.

Protests against Aunt Jemima’s restaurants began in 1962. But there had been objections to the Aunt Jemima image on pancake mix boxes much earlier. Black newspapers ran an editorial in 1937 saying that Aunt Jemima was an “insulting caricature,” in particular criticizing the bandanna she wore over her hair, saying, “The fight against ‘Aunt Jemima’s’ bandanna is one of self-respect.” (Quaker did not get rid of Aunt Jemima’s bandanna until 1968.) Yet, apparently not all Black people were offended by the Aunt Jemima portrayal. In 1952 the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore hired a marketing company to research the use of Aunt Jemima pancake mix by their Black readers. The company surveyed 501 Black families and 501 white families whose house values or rents were similar. Both groups chose Aunt Jemima pancake mix as their favorite, but it was preferred by a higher proportion of Black respondents (38.1%) than white (31.7%).

It would be interesting to know whether the results would have been the same if the survey had been carried out in the 1960s. The NAACP led the protests, joined by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The biggest victory seems to have been in an affluent suburb of Rochester NY, Brighton, where an Aunt Jemima’s restaurant was proposed in 1963. The two organizations criticized Aunt Jemima for her degrading costume, calling her “a negative stereotype of a Negro subservient to a white family.” The restaurant was not built but once again opinion was not unanimous in Rochester’s Black community. The editor of a city paper, The Frederick Douglass Voice, contended that “These symbols are part and parcel of our heritage.”

The Rochester protest was widely ridiculed in opinion pieces in the white press that characterized protestors as humorless and oversensitive. Writing in Chapel Hill NC’s Daily Tar Heel, author Armistead Maupin called it “comical” and “absurd,” arguing that the mammy was not a negative stereotype but a historical figure to be proud of.

Still, the tide was turning. In 1966 members of the American Federation of Teachers voted at their annual convention at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel to picket the hotel’s Aunt Jemima restaurant unless it agreed to allow its workers to unionize and get rid of the mammy costume worn by the Black hostess. The delegates then resolved to urge Quaker Oats to drop the Aunt Jemima symbol on its products or face a possible boycott. According to an article in Jet magazine, the restaurant’s hostess expressed unhappiness that her heritage was attacked and that she could no longer wear the Aunt Jemima costume, which she had designed. Obviously the AFT was unsuccessful in asking Quaker to get rid of the Aunt Jemima trademark, which did not happen until this year.

In 1968 and 1969 a number of Aunt Jemima restaurants closed. The restaurant in Grand Rapids MI became Colonial Kitchen, while one in Mount Prospect IL was renamed Village Inn Pancake House. Many across the country became part of the Calico Kitchens chain. In 1970 Disneyland ended its contract with Quaker Oats and renamed its Aunt Jemima restaurant Magnolia Tree Terrace, changing that in 1971 to River Belle Terrace.

© Jan Whitaker, 2020

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Filed under chain restaurants, family restaurants, food, racism, restaurant controversies, theme restaurants, uniforms & costumes

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. 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.

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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

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