107-year-old Decatur woman, and her diner, helped build black Atlanta

107-year-old Decatur woman, and her diner, helped build black Atlanta

Leila Williams

ATLANTA — Leila Williams turned 107 a couple of weeks ago, at a residential nursing home in Decatur. As expected, at that age, her power of recall has dimmed. She remembers that she's from Union Point, Georgia, and the words to "Yes, Jesus Loves Me," perhaps one the first hymns she learned as a child.

But when asked the name of her former restaurant, the business she ran for nearly 50 years in Southwest Atlanta, she pauses. Her brow furrows. She raises her deep brown hand toward her snowy, white hair. Just then, it comes to her.

"Leila's Dinette," she says, her voice clear, if not strong.

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And what did she cook there?

"Corn?" she says, trailing off.

Yes, corn. But also, collards, cabbage, fried chicken, baked chicken, fried fish, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, stewed beef, grits, eggs, bacon, salmon croquettes and more. It was that down-home menu and matching atmosphere that made Leila's Dinette one of the refuges where Atlanta's post-civil rights reputation as a "black mecca," was nurtured. The dinette was one of a handful of black-owned restaurants, such as Paschal's, Fraizer's and the Busy Bee, where the architects of that strategy could meet over plates of soul food and know they were in a safe place. The dinette was where Mayor Maynard Jackson would meet with his chief of staff to hammer out plans to expand the city's then-small airport.

It's where Morehouse students, such as Samuel L. Jackson and Paul Howard, Jr., — now Fulton County District Attorney— escaped the drudgery of college cafeteria food. It's where the deal was struck to fund the nation's first African-American-owned airline, Atlanta Air.

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Today, Williams seems to recall none of it. But many of the people who were regulars remember. They tell stories not only of the food but of Williams herself as the comforting, matriarchal proprietor who knew the importance of the space she'd created. On her milestone birthday, they reflected on the role the small brick and stucco building at the bottom of the hill played in black Atlanta's ascendance.

"She might not remember us, but we remember her," said Bill Edwards, now mayor of South Fulton, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a Morehouse student.

"The Best in Your Life"

The current image of Atlanta's west and southwest sides are as places that are rapidly gentrifying, with young white people coming in and working-class black people being driven out by rising property taxes. But there was a time, not so long ago, when that area was a hub of the black community, especially in the years during legal racial segregation and for decades after. The Atlanta University Center was an anchor. Williams doesn't have children who can tell her story. But growing up, Julius Hollis, a longtime financial consultant in Atlanta, lived about a block away from Leila's Dinette. This was a neighborhood where the black middle class and working class lived side by side. It was also close to the university center.

Hollis, 70, said Williams worked at Busy Bee Café as a cook before she started her own café. His mother worked there as a waitress, and the two became friends. Williams and her husband, Charlie, decided to start their own restaurant around 1949. Williams might have been inspired not only by Busy Bee, but also by the success that brothers Robert and James Paschal were having with their fledgling luncheonette, that would become Atlanta's legendary Paschal's restaurant.

Williams built her menu on Southern staples, the kinds of hearty foods people with country roots grew up eating and craved once they moved to the city. She opened for breakfast and went until about 10 p.m., serving the food along a long counter, a few tables in the middle and booths along one wall of the diner. Hollis remembers a jukebox that played hits by artists many today might know only through samples: Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Lou Rawls. The music, specialties such as her signature egg custard — "the best you've ever had in your life," Hollis said — drew in a cross-section of the black community.

"Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who was president of Morehouse, Vernon Jordan, a lot of the professors at Morehouse, Maynard Jackson, all of them were frequent visitors, but it would also include people across the cross section of black Atlanta: teachers, day laborers, ministers," Hollis said. "You could sit down, break bread and check your ego at the door."

For the burgeoning black political class, such as Jackson, being close to constituents and being seen doing something as regular as having a fried chicken lunch, signaled they were not simply comfortable in the space, but of the space. Walter Huntley, 71, was Jackson's chief of staff and served in different capacities in the administration between 1974 and 1982.

"He'd call me up and say, ‘Let's go get some fried chicken at Leila's,'" Huntley said, "and we'd talk over policy. During that period of time, it was probably the joint venture at the airport or identifying more women and young people to serve on commissions."

Hollis recalls that when his late brother, Michael, incorporated what would become Air Atlanta, just a couple of years before Michael's 30th birthday, the first major investment deal was struck over a meal at the dinette in 1980. It was $3.5 million from the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees Union. It was a crowning achievement for the Hollis family and for the image of Atlanta as a city where black business people could get ahead. But there was another early investor: Williams, Hollis said. She and Hollis' mother, Virginia, gave $35,000 in seed money to the airline, which operated from 1984 to 1987.

But if the food brought them there, it was Williams who kept them there, Huntley said. "She would greet you and say, ‘Hi, baby, how you?' and she reminded me of my grandmother and my aunts,'" he said. "It was a nice, warm space."

"A Gracious Lady"

Just as Paschal's grew, so did the dinette, but differently. Where Paschal's came to represent a more formal dining experience, the dinette became, "The ‘Cheers' of soul food," said Edwards, referring to the bar on the eponymous 1980s hit television show. "Everybody knew everybody," he said.

Edwards, 69, was a student at Morehouse in the early 1970s. He was classmates with Samuel L. Jackson and remembers how students would save their money to go to the dinette.

"She was such a gracious lady, she probably would have fed you if you didn't have any money," Edwards said.

Though he never tried getting a free meal, scraping together extra cash was worth scrounging for if it meant time at the dinette. Leila's meant food, but for a college student, it also provided a respite, he said.

"It brought its own flavor, and that flavor was home, and there was a lady in there named Miss Leila, and she was like Mama," Edwards said. "It reminded me that no matter how things go in your life, there's always home."

As the neighborhood began to change and fall on hard times and Williams got older, she closed the restaurant in the early 1990s. Other restaurants opened in the space, but none had the staying power of the dinette. The building still stands and now is home to Marddy's, a shared commercial kitchen where budding food entrepreneurs can work in a commercially licensed kitchen. Its target audience is women and people of color, a call-back to the woman who once made the building a community mainstay.

There is little outward trace now of what the building once was. But a few of those who remember honored her at her birthday party recently and told old stories of the meals they had and the woman who served them.