Credit: Orlando Montoya / Georgia Public Broadcasting
A former Georgia restaurant with a complicated, racist past gets a future home
A Georgia restaurant just north of Atlanta with a racist history is moving.
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin closed 30 years ago in Smyrna. The run-down wooden building in the heart of the city was slated for demolition. But it was saved a few weeks ago when a beef farm agreed to move it to West Georgia’s Carroll County.
The yearslong saga of what to do with Aunt Fanny’s Cabin divided Smyrna. Some saw it as a symbol of the pain and suffering of segregation. Others saw it as a symbol of one remarkable and strong woman.
“When I found out about what went on during that time, I was very offended,” said Maryline Blackburn, who was part of the Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. “At the same time, [I've] come to realize, as offensive as it is, it is history.”
Aunt Fanny’s Cabin was built as a sharecropper’s home in the late 19th century and became a restaurant in 1941.
The white Campbell family owned it and named it after their caretaker and cook, Fanny Williams, who was Black.
It quickly became a well-known dining destination.
“You had celebrities like Liberace, Clark Gable, even former President Jimmy Carter would visit,” Blackburn said. “People would come from all around to enjoy the food and the atmosphere.”
But while the food included Southern staples like fried chicken and “Gen-U-Wine” Smithfield ham, the atmosphere included racist stereotypes.
Black youth employees were made to wear wooden menu boards around their necks and dance on milk crates.
The walls had framed advertisements for enslaved people.
The restaurant’s namesake and head cook sat on the front porch in a stereotypical faded dress and headwrap.
“This is the part that people cannot get past,” said Shaun Martin, who's also involved in the Coalition to Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. “And unfortunately, this is also the part that led to the degradation of Black people.”
Fanny Williams died in 1949, long before the restaurant fully adopted its Old South theme, according to Blackburn and Martin.
“We have to, as Black people, get to a place where we are not afraid of the pain,” Martin said. “What we have to do is see these places as evidence that we have to move on and forward.
The restaurant closed in 1992 and most of it was moved a few years later into the heart of Smyrna, where the city government operated it as an event space, hosting meetings and birthday parties, until it was condemned.
That’s when the city’s residents divided over what to do with Aunt Fanny’s Cabin.
In the decades since the racist heyday of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, Smyrna changed.
Like many cities around Atlanta, it went from being an overwhelmingly white and rural enclave to a suburb of a diverse metropolis.
The city is now about evenly divided between white and non-white residents. And some city council members didn’t want to preserve the old cabin and its terrible history.
“I don’t think that is what we really want to portray as Smyrna because I don’t believe it is Smyrna today,” council member Travis Lindley told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“It don’t remind me of nothing but racism,” Roderick McNeal, a former restaurant employee, was quoted as saying in The New York Times. “It’s an old racist’s house, and it’s past time for it to go.”
However, The Coalition To Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin worked to change the narrative, focusing on the restaurant’s namesake, about whom much is unknown.
‘Reminds me of my mother’
Fanny Williams was born 1868, a few years after the Civil War, to formerly enslaved parents.
In the 1930s, she was a major fundraiser for the Wheat Street Baptist Church, where she was a lifelong member.
In the 1940s, she attended the groundbreaking of the Cobb Cooperative, Cobb County’s first Black hospital, to which Williams was a major donor.
Martin sees these facts as evidence that she was an enterprising pioneer.
“She did not greet guests at the back of the cabin, she greeted them at the front,” Martin said. “And the fact that you see this woman standing there with her name displayed right across the front of the cabin is phenomenal for a Black woman.”
Sharing a picture of Williams, Martin said the image reminded her of her aunt, her mother and other strong Black women.
Sharing a picture of Isoline Campbell McKenna, the white owner of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, Martin suggested that the relationship between employer and employee was congenial and family-like.
The Coalition To Save Aunt Fanny’s Cabin believed the building could be renovated and turned into, among other things, a center for justice and reconciliation or a culinary arts institute, all centered around the idea that Williams represented interracial harmony and entrepreneurship.
In the era of George Floyd and Ahmaud Abery, the idea was powerful — if historically a stretch, since the record on Williams is so scant.
But in the end, it looks like the building neither will be torn down nor turned into a museum.
To Carroll County
After receiving bids on the building, the city of Smyrna awarded it to Ashley Farms, a Carroll County farm that raises Limousin and Angus cattle.
The farm proposed to move the cabin and honor Williams with a commemorative plaque.
“Once the cabin is relocated, we will determine the feasibility of the restaurant part,” the proposal said.
The farm has until July to move it, a bittersweet prospect for Blackburn, Martin and their coalition.
“One of the missions that we set out to do is to save the cabin and in saving the cabin, that we did,” Blackburn said, but adding, “when you move a building, demolish a building, you no longer can tell its history, as I say, in its entirety.”
That entirety includes, as it does at landmarks like Aunt Fanny’s Cabin across the South, complex narratives about race and change.