Smyrna to vote on approval of first place artists for Fanny Williams memorial Monday

The exterior of Smyrna City Hall, a red brick building with four large columns

by Arielle Robinson

The Smyrna City Council will vote Monday on approving the first place design of North Carolina artists David Wilson, Stephen Hayes, and Michael Gonzales for the Fanny Williams memorial.

The trio’s project is called “Testimony of Redemption.” It will feature a life-size statue of Williams with a shovel in front of a curved wall with Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church on it as the backdrop.

A hymn by antebellum-era composer Joseph Philbrick Webster will be on the back of the wall. The memorial will be near the Smyrna History Museum.

The project will cost $125,000. Currently, the project is a design that may have more adjustments added to it in the future.

Williams was the Black maid and cook to Smyrna’s wealthy white Campbell family around the early to mid-20th century and the namesake of the famous former restaurant Aunt Fanny’s Cabin, which glorified the antebellum and Jim Crow eras. 

Williams was active in her local community and was said to have fought for Civil Rights and faced intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan.

The shovel Williams will hold on the statue symbolizes the shovel she used to break ground on Cobb County’s first Black hospital in the late 1940s. She also was a major fundraiser for the hospital.

Williams was a longtime member of the social justice-oriented Wheat Street Baptist Church.

The original Aunt Fanny’s Cabin closed in 1992, but around 1997, Smyrna constructed a replica of the building with parts from the original structure. The building was next to the city’s history museum.

After months-long debates between city councilmembers and residents, in August of last year, Smyrna demolished the building after plans to have outsiders take the cabin fell through.

Since February of last year, the Committee to Honor Fanny Williams has worked to create a memorial in honor of the restaurant’s namesake and give onlookers something to respect and appreciate beyond the restaurant’s racist past.

The goal is to “celebrate Fanny Williams as an African American woman, for her legacy of activism, economic sustainability, social justice that gave agency to people who did not have a voice, and her lasting impact on our community,” according to the city’s website on the manner.

The Committee received 36 replies to its request for qualifications on the project and subsequently approved four finalists, each of whom had to propose a design for the memorial. 

The Committee recommends the RFQ to Wilson, Hayes, and Gonzales’ team, which will be decided upon at Monday’s city council meeting at 7 p.m.

“…we did have a lot of conversation about potential amendments to the design,” Deputy City Administrator Penny Moceri said at Thursday evening’s Committee of the Whole work session.

“Through the contract process—and there will be different levels that they have to meet and that’s how they kind of structure the payment—we will do an original contract agreement and a portion would be paid there, and then you’ll go into final design.

“So there will be an opportunity between then for the artist team to sit back down with the Committee [to Honor Fanny Williams] and go through the project, the proposal, and say what we liked, what we didn’t like…and then [the artists] will go back and do a redesign. Every level of the project has city approval built in,” Moceri said.

Councilmember Latonia Hines is on the Commitee to Honor Fanny Williams and thanked Moceri for her work with the Commitee Thursday and said she still loved the second place finalist Vinnie Bagwell’s design. Bagwell’s design features a statue of Williams standing and holding a pie.

But Hines also said, “I think that the ultimate choice that we came up with, being able to do a multi-dimensional presentation of Fanny Williams is pretty phenomenal. And then if we can go in and do little tweaks in making sure that the Smyrna part of her is truly represented and also at the same time, the Atlanta part too, which is the point—her influence was not just contained here.”

Professionals who have assisted the Committee along the way are: Keith Kaseman, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology; Nicole Moore, Director of Education at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights; Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Morehouse College; and Jennifer Grant Warner, President and CEO of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

Smyrna History Museum Manager Jennie Eldredge also sat down with the four panelists and worked with them to answer their questions.

Councilmember Susan Wilkinson asked if the Committee is considering changing the clothing Williams is designed to wear on the memorial. The design shows Williams wearing a dress of the era with a head scarf over her hair, like how she is dressed in almost all the photos that exist of her.

“I guess I sort of see her as being a real strong woman. I just picture her being dressed in more of like a fancy outfit sometimes with a hat, versus maybe work clothes, because she was such a strong individual with a lot of dignity,” Wilkinson said.

Councilmember Tim Gould, who chairs the Committee to Honor Fanny Williams, responded no.

“I think as far as dictating specifics of it, we’ve never wanted to go down that path, that’s not our role, we’re not the artists, so we gave them a framework and this is what the folks came back with,” Gould said.

Hines said that she wanted Williams “to be portrayed as a person who had power despite her position,” and that is why she did not support earlier proposals of Williams sitting.

“I can only speak from my own personal experiences,” Hines said. “And my personal experiences are colored on some levels from being a Black woman, and growing up with wonderful Black women who because of the times, they didn’t have a choice but to do the work that they did, but they were superheroes.”

“I grew up around very strong Southern women as well,” Wilkinson said.

“And I understand that, but when I think about my great grandmother having to work the way she did, the way she had to work—phenomenal woman—she didn’t have the opportunity to be more,” Hines said. 

Hines did not sound supportive of the idea of changing Williams’ clothes.

“Let me just sort of clarify what I’m thinking a little bit more,” Wilkinson said. “I feel like we’re sort of getting away from her…because she didn’t work at the cabin…I kind of look at that and think that she’s dressed like she might have been dressed working. And maybe that is important, I’m just asking if there was ever any consideration done for her to be dressed differently.”

Gould said that he was pleased with what they currently have.

Wilkinson also questioned the decision about having Wheat Street Baptist Church featured in the memorial, as it is not in Smyrna.

“Whatever way people put it or think of it, this woman was more than the place for which she never got any intellectual property rights for, for which she never earned any rights for purposes of this,” Hines said. “You get to use her name and everything, but she never earned any money for purposes of her own branding. I think yes to having Smyrna because we are the ones putting it out there without a doubt, but then also just showing that her reach was more than just the city limits.”