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Aunt Fanny’s Cabin…History or Racist Reminder


Aunt Fanny’s Cabin…History worth remembering or a racist past that needs to be left in our rear-view mirror? The subtle answer is like a pinball bouncing off the sides of whatever it touches. 

Like most things, history and worth are determined by whom you speak to. What has been described by some as having been one of the most popular restaurants south of the Mason-Dixon is described by others as a racist stereotype and an ugly reminder of how Black people were mistreated and degraded for the entertainment of Whites.

Picture of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, or what’s left of it, sits on the edge of downtown Smyrna. During its heyday, people allegedly traveled from around the world to taste Aunt Fanny’s homemade cooking. As diners flocked to the cabin over the decades for good eats, they were also entertained at the expense of Black people who were depicted in derogatory manners. Star-studded celebrity guests, sports icons, and luminaries, including former President Jimmy Carter, enjoyed Fanny’s soul food. As they ate, they adjusted their rose-colored glasses to enjoy the heaping helping of black exploitation occurring right before their eyes, which was served alongside each meal they enjoyed. 

When owners first turned the two-room cabin into Aunt Fanny’s cabin restaurant, they designed it as a depiction of the Antebellum South. Black boys were hired as servers and made to wear wooden menu boards around their necks and welcomed the predominantly white customers by caroling the menu to them, the Washington Post reported in 1992. They danced on tabletops, gleefully proclaimed that the “South will rise again,” and pitched in when patrons sang anthems of the Antebellum South like “Dixie.” In 1976, the New York Times was reporting that Aunt Fanny’s walls were lined with framed advertisements for slaves.

As best as some may try, one simply cannot separate the memory of Aunt Fanny’s good food and notable patrons from the racist past that allowed it to flourish. However, it appears that a group will try. Smyrna Mayor Derek Norton commissioned in August a racially mixed task force, composed of three city council members, two residents, and a local historian, to consider what to do with Aunt Fanny’s Cabin.

The group could recommend restoring Fanny’s memory for those still wearing rose colored glasses, but some people in the community are stepping up to say that restoration should be a non-starter for our diverse community. In 2021, citizens are not on board and will not remain silent as public funds are used to  immortalize a restaurant that thrived, in part, by making demeaning racial stereotypes of Black people profitable, including Aunt Fanny herself.  

One such person is Councilman Travis Lindley, the task force’s chairperson, who is against preserving the building. He is not alone and has the support of many from the community behind him. “I don’t think that is what we really want to portray as Smyrna, because I don’t believe it is Smyrna today,” Lindley said. “There’s certainly a lot of painful history here, but I think it’s time to start looking forward.

Notwithstanding this neon blinking billboard of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin’s ugly past, the task force’s goal is to determine what the city should do – preserve, rebuild, demolish, or try to give away Aunt Fanny’s Cabin. This is an important task because no one will be allowed to tiptoe around the briar patch of Aunt Fanny’s past or glorify something that was so ugly and demeaning for Black people. Blacks will no longer grin and bear it as we make our way to the year 2022. We are often reminded how the Jewish community refuses to allow anyone to embrace the ugly past that their people endured. Yet, when it comes to how Blacks were killed and dehumanized, we look to preserve the history around this. No one should be allowed to embrace, glorify, protect, or preserve an ugly past that terrorized Black people.

Some want to use Fanny as the reason to preserve the cabin, but not so fast. Fanny Williams, who the cabin is named after, was a longtime servant of the wealthy Campbell family that was among Smyrna’s first settlers. Family heiress Isoline Campbell originally opened Aunt Fanny’s Cabin as an antique mart and tea shop which showcased Williams’ vegetable soups, goulash, and gingerbread.

Fanny’s cooking outshined Isoline’s antiques, so Isoline shifted her business’ focus to southern cooking, capitalizing off Aunt Fanny all the way to the bank. Despite helping make Aunt Fanny’s Cabin famous, Fanny did not appear to have any financial stake in the restaurant based on records from that time. Councilman Lewis Wheaton described Fanny as a mascot saying to a reporter, “She was absolutely the mascot for an Old South restaurant located here in Smyrna.” Critics say Fanny was reduced to symbolize a “mammy” who sat on the front porch of the restaurant in a faded calico dress and headwrap regaling customers with stories of her days as a slave, even thought she was never a slave as she was born after slavery was abolished. 

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant closed its doors in 1992. In 1997, Smyrna bought salvaged pieces of the cabin and relocated it to the city’s welcome center along Atlanta Road next door to the Smyrna History Museum. Earlier this year, Smyrna’s chief building inspector condemned Aunt Fanny’s Cabin after he inspected all of the city’s facilities.

Task force members are confronted with the ugly and racially insensitive side of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin’s legacy. The cabin is in shambles and the price tag to revamp this two-room shack and turn it into an historic monument could run as high as $550,000. The city says that the price tag to tear the old cabin down and build a new version is close to $400,000, but the final decision will not be strictly determined by finance.

The world is watching. Smyrna is like other cities across the country – dealing with ugly reminders of racism. The deaths of George Floyd and others as well as the public outcry and unrest has forced communities to finally address many of these issues that they chose in the past to sweep under the rug or hold their noses and bear it. Memorials and other tributes to our country’s racist past have been removed and are coming down. What will progressive and diverse Smyrna do on this issue? The clock is ticking as they have until the end of the month to make recommendations.

Aunt Fanny’s Cabin restaurant closed its doors in 1992. In 1997, Smyrna bought salvaged pieces of the cabin and relocated it to the city’s welcome center along Atlanta Road next door to the Smyrna History Museum. Earlier this year, Smyrna’s chief building inspector condemned Aunt Fanny’s Cabin after he inspected all of the city’s facilities.

Some of the relics hidden in the cabin are blunt reminders of a shameful period in American history when slaves were bought and sold as personal chattel. Lindley said he was shaken when he stumbled across a placemat stashed in one of the office drawers. It was a drawing of children in blackface gleefully advertising Aunt Fanny’s Cabin’s hot biscuits, char-broiled steaks, and other favorites. “Why would we want to memorialize that, spend money on it, and stick a city of Smyrna sign on it like, ‘This is our history, and we’re proud of it,”  the councilman said during a Nov. 18 gathering of task force members. “There is nothing to be proud of.”

Despite the offensive narratives it painted of African Americans, some think the cabin should be preserved. One Smyrna Councilman, Charles “Corkey” Welch, believes Aunt Fanny’s Cabin has redeeming qualities that should be preserved. Lindley, who represents Ward 3 – the downtown Smyrna district where the cabin currently sits – said the discussion needs to center on how to honor the legacy of Fanny Williams more so than that of Aunt Fanny’s Cabin.

The task force plans to meet one last time at 4 p.m. Monday at City Hall to discuss the budget options for renovation and demolition. During that meeting, they will still be left to answer the critical issue. “Exactly what are we preserving?


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