From Sunday, July 21 through Friday, July 26, Sweetums and I drove 2,150 miles from Huntsville, Alabama, to Fort Worth, Texas, and back again.Some of you followed along on social media but I promised more detailed posts on all our stops. It will take a few weeks to get to them all. I am planning to post in order of the trip. The map is below. Most sites will be included in my upcoming Guide to Southern Oddities. Meanwhile, check out my personal Facebook page or Kelly Kazek’s Weird South or Instagram.
Road-Trip Stop No. 6:
555 Highway 61 South, Natchez, Miss., 601-445-8957
So what’s the deal with Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez’s legendary belle-shaped restaurant: Is she or isn’t she offensive? It depends on who you are, and who you ask, I suppose. These days, she’s more pitiful than anything.
Mammy’s Cupboard is a roadside icon, seen from Highway 61 in Natchez, whose cultural appropriateness was called into question when she was painted black and the name “Mammy” was used in the name.
Oddly enough, some people believe the structural figure began as a white Southern belle, according to RoadsideAmerica.com.
Currently, the face of the figure appears Caucasian, although she looks quite sickly. Her skirt, made of bricks, still serves as a café where locals come for country cooking. The restaurant wasn’t open the day we were in Natchez so we stopped by to take exterior photos.
She is currently missing one arm, as well as the tray she once held, cracks in her skirt are patched with white mortar. Her cartoonish mouth looks rather like a horror-film clown and she could certainly use some makeup. But considering she has been in this spot since the 1939, she’s in fairly good shape.
Here’s what we know about Mammy:
The restaurant was built by service station owner Henry Gaude in 1939. He wanted a way to pull motorists from the highway and at that time, of course, “Gone With the Wind” was the hottest movie in the nation. According to RoadsideAmerica.com, she may have been intended as more of a Scarlett, a white Southern belle, designed by Annie Davis Best, whose husband was a local architect. Henry, however, seemed to feel a black mammy offered a more appealing and nurturing face for a diner. At the time, “mammy” had positive connotations of nurturing and warmth, although in the subsequent years, the stereotype took on negative aspects of enslavement and servitude.
An article on Mississippi Encyclopedia suggests Mammy was always meant to be an African-American “mammy,” saying, “The twenty-eight-foot high building was constructed in the shape of a slave woman with hoop skirt – a mammy figure. She originally had earrings made from horseshoes and a serving tray in her hands, with white hair and a red head scarf that suggested maturity and modesty. The figure’s exaggerated black color, white circles under the eyes, and bright red rouge drew from minstrel makeup conventions and from standard racist imagery of blacks at the time.”
By 1979, Mammy was seen as more of an embarrassment and was nearly demolished. Instead, she was saved and new owners painted her skin lighter.
Judging from online photos, the interior is filled with Mammy memorabilia and souvenirs as well as tables for diners. The current owner serves homemade comfort foods. Apparently, even Hollywood actors are drawn to the controversial figure; RoadsideAmerica.com says visitors have included Hilary Swank, the diminutive Linda Hunt from “NCIS: New Orleans,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine’s” Craig Robinson.
Whatever color Mammy is painted, locals seem to agree that the building has now passed into legend and needs to be preserved. Hopefully, she will get some TLC in coming months.