Aunt Jemima

Quaker Oats acknowledged to the AP that Aunt Jemima’s origins were based on a racial stereotype.


The real story behind ‘Aunt Jemima,’ and a woman born enslaved in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky


‘Aunt Jemima’ descendants upset her likeness is being ‘erased from history’


Alicestyne Turley is the coordinator of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN, a Kentucky Humanities Council Scholar, a commissioner of the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission and a board member of the Kentucky African American Heritage Center. 

Her article follows :

Utilizing one of the nation’s most beloved racial stereotypes, in 1890 R. T. Davis, the president of Davis Milling Company, launched the nation’s first successful product marketing campaign which has lasted over 130 years. Last week’s decision by Quaker Oats (PepsiCo) to officially remove the image and name “Aunt Jemima” from its oldest and most successful product line, sparked a twenty-first century controversy, bearing witness to the art and power of storytelling.

To understand why the “Aunt Jemima” image is racist, one would have to first understand American history, which as a nation we have worked hard to sanitize. To all my friends who remain confused, I would like to first share that “Aunt Jemima” was a minstrel show character developed during the mid-1850s by a white male in blackface (yes, that same blackface which has embarrassed so many of our modern politicians) dressed as a black woman, designed to entertain white audiences. An extremely popular art form, white minstrelsy performed in blackface became the major way by which white audiences were introduced to a perceived notion of “black” life and culture. The “Aunt Jemima” minstrel character was meant to reflect the archetypical southern “Mammy” every white American household needed and desired and as such, has remained one of the most enduring 19th century caricatures embraced by modern society as an authentic black representation.

Never achieving the status of “Mother,” (a status reserved for white women) “Mammy” or the nationally elevated “Aunt Jemima,” was at best a “mother’s helper.” Trusted enough to remain in the big house, it was “Mammy’s” responsibility to prepare the family’s food and clothing, to care for the family’s children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and friends, and to serve as a trusted confidant responsible for the emotional and physical support and well-being of her white family. Always happy, never complaining, loyal and dutiful to the end, “Mammy” worked for no pay or time-off. She survived only on the love and support of her white family.

In 1889, utilizing this well-known, comforting black image, Charles Rutt and Chris Underwood, founders of Pearl Milling Company carefully crafted the “Aunt Jemima” script, renaming their company the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company. Following several failed attempts to commercially market their ready-made pancake mix, Rutt and Underwood sold the script, the image, their milling company, and their self-rising formula to the R. T. Davis Milling Company. Davis then advertised for and hired a black woman to embody the purposefully designed role of America’s “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemima.”

In 1890, a 56-year-old widowed, black woman and former housekeeper living at 4543 Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, named Nancy Green, who bore no physical or cultural resemblance to the carefully created, artfully crafted, universally familiar image of “Aunt Jemima,” was hired to fulfill the sales position. With Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook and activist, serving as their pitch-woman, the Davis Milling Company re-introduced the pancake mix in St. Joseph, Missouri, that same year, and as is said, the rest is history.

Nancy Green, aka “Aunt Jemima,” was born enslaved March 4, 1834 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. Sometime during her late teens, early twenties Nancy obtained her freedom and began work in Covington as a nanny and housekeeper to Charles Morehead Walker and his wife Amanda who were former members of Montgomery County’s Somerset Christian Church. The Walker family relocated from Covington to Chicago, circa 1856-59, taking a young Nancy Green with them. Nancy remained a nurse and personal attendant to the Walker’s two young sons into their adulthood, where they went on to become Chicago Circuit Court Judge Charles M. Walker, Jr. and Dr. Samuel J. Walker, a wealthy Northside Chicago physician, until her employment with the Davis Milling Company. Green’s former wards actively promoted Green for the role of “Aunt Jemima,” claiming the famed pancake recipe marketed by Davis, was in fact Nancy Green’s own pancake recipe which Davis adapted to a ready-mix.

As a Chicago citizen, Nancy Green translated her “Aunt Jemima” fame into becoming a founding member of Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church, one of Chicago’s largest black congregations, serving as a church missionary who advocated for antipoverty programs and black equal rights. Green’s fame as America’s “Aunt Jemima” could not protect her in life, however. On September 23, 1923 she was struck down on the sidewalk at age 89, by a car driven by Chicago drugstore owner Dr. H. S. Seymour, on 46th Street. Green died at the scene. At the age of 89, Green was still working as the spokeswoman for Quaker Oats “Aunt Jemima” production line. Yet, upon her death, she was buried in a remote section of Chicago’s black owned Oakwood Cemetery, marked only by a buried headstone bearing the numbers “291.” The woman Nancy Green, forgotten by history, while the image of America’s “Mammy in a Box,” “Aunt Jemima,” remains.

Interviews from
NY News with family members of other “Aunt Jemima” spokeswomen:

While many have welcomed the Aunt Jemima change, Larnell Evans Sr., the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, who he says played the Aunt Jemima character after she was discovered while serving pancakes at the New York State Fair in 1935, believes the branding should remain the same. 

In his interview with NY News, Evans says, “This comes as a slap in the face,” She worked 25 years doing it. She improved their product … what they’re trying to do is ludicrous.”

In her interview with NY News, Vera Harris speaks of her great aunt Lillian Richard, who traveled the country promoting the Quaker Oats brand and portrayed the Aunt Jemima character for more than 20 years.  “She took the job to make an honest living to support herself, touring around at fairs, cooking demonstrations and events,” Harris said. “When she came back home, they were proud of her and we’re still proud of her.”   Harris and her family have led several efforts to commemorate Richard’s legacy. Signs leading into Hawkins, Texas, read “Home of Lillian Richard ‘Aunt Jemima’,” and the town often hosts pancake festivals in her honor. The Texas Legislature also passed a resolution declaring Hawkins as the “Pancake Capital of Texas” in 1995.

“Take the logo away, because it is offensive, but my aunt Lillian was a beautiful, intelligent lady that had to do domesticated type of work to make a living,” Harris said. “I just don’t want that erased from my family history because it’s almost like erasing a part of me.”

Ethel Ernestine Harper, the last real woman whose face appeared on the brand, later became a celebrated teacher of Black history through schools, the Girl Scouts and as a topical radio host in her adopted hometown of Morristown, New Jersey.   Harper was born in 1903 in Alabama, where she grew up and earned a college degree at age 17, worked as a teacher and was president of the Birmingham City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs before moving to New York to pursue a career in music.

All of the families should be extremely proud of their strong, trailblazing, enterprising black women!    Let me first say, you cannot “erase” history.  What happened in life – happened.  Period.   Changing a product name, moving a statue, etc., does not erase that it existed, that it had a history!   But those women were
not “Aunt Jemima”.  “SHE” was a fictional character, derived from a caricature of a generic black cook/nanny.    “SHE”, the character, is an insult to black women.   We are not embarrassed by the REAL cooks, housekeepers and nannies that worked hard to provide a living for their families.  We are not embarrassed by the women who portrayed the character.   The women that portrayed “Aunt Jemima” were playing a role, just like any other actor.  Unfortunately, these were the only kinds of roles that were offered to women of color back then.   

Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as “Mammy” in “Gone With The Wind”.  I looked up the filmography of Ms. McDaniel, and she appeared in 97 films.  The majority of those were roles of maids or cooks.    [  As a item of interest, the 12th Academy Awards were held at the famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel. McDaniel arrived in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair.  McDaniel then was escorted, not to the “Gone With the Wind” table — where Selznick sat with de Havilland and his two Oscar-nominated leads, Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable — but to a small table set against a far wall, where she took a seat with her escort, F.P. Yober, and her white agent, William Meiklejohn.   With the hotel’s strict no-blacks policy, Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building (it was officially integrated by 1959, when the Unruh Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in California).   It should also be noted that McDaniel was not invited to the premiere of “Gone With the Wind” in 1939. The premiere was held in Atlanta, Georgia, which at the time had strict segregation laws. Selznick attempted to get some of the Black actors who worked on the film, including McDaniel, invited to the premiere, but MGM studios advised against it because she would not have been allowed to sit in the theater with her white co-stars. ]

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, better known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit, was an American vaudevillian, comedian, and film actor of Jamaican and Bahamian descent, considered to be the first black actor to have a successful film career.  But these were the only type of roles offered to black men at that time.   His stage name was based on the term “step and fetch.”    

To “step and fetch” is how many people once described the job of a slave or handyman, and Stepin Fetchit was the famous actor who often played the stereotype of the lazy black man.   His highest profile was during the 1930s in films and on stage, when his persona of Stepin Fetchit was billed as “the Laziest Man in the World”.    Perry parlayed the Fetchit persona into a successful film career, becoming the first black actor to earn a million dollars. He was also the first black actor to receive featured screen credit in a film.  We are proud of his accomplishments.

But, let’s get back to the subject of the Aunt Jemima role in history.   Culinary historian Michael Twitty calls black cooks like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and “Rastus,” the Cream of Wheat man, “stand-ins for what white people viewed as a generation of formerly enslaved Black cooks now lost to them.”

The character of Aunt Jemima is an invitation to white people to indulge in a fantasy of enslaved people — and by extension, all of Black America — as submissive, self-effacing, loyal, pacified and pacifying,”  Twitty wrote in a recent NBC Think essay.  “It positions Black people as boxed in, prepackaged and ready to satisfy; it’s the problem of all consumption, only laced with racial overtones.”

Ms. Harris, whose Great Aunt was Lillian Davis, pointed out that her family has done several things to commemorate Davis’s role, and that should be applauded.

The point she is slightly missing is that their focus should be on Ms. Davis portraying “Aunt Jemima”, not Aunt Jemima herself.   It would be nice is the sign in her hometown read “Home of Little Richard and Lillian Davis” instead.  That’s how you carry on her legacy.   People are remembering the character, not the woman that portrayed her.   Ms. Davis, Ms. Green, and Ms. Harper; those are the names and lives we need to remember and celebrate.   

I had to add this section in response to someone saying that “Aunt Jemima” was no different than “Betty Crocker”, because she is also a fictional advertising character.   

The “Betty Crocker” character was born in 1921, when an ad for Gold Medal Flour was placed in the Saturday Evening Post. The ad featured a puzzle of a quaint main street scene. Contestants were encouraged to complete the puzzle and send it in for the prize of a pincushion in the shape of a sack of Gold Medal Flour. The response was overwhelming; around 30,000 completed puzzles flooded the Washburn-Crosby offices. Many of the completed puzzles were accompanied by letters filled with baking questions and concerns, something the Washburn-Crosby Company hadn’t anticipated. Previously, the company’s small advertising department had dealt with customer mail and questions. The department manager, Samuel Gale, and his all-male staff would consult the women of the Gold Medal Home Service staff with customers baking and cooking questions. Gale never felt completely comfortable signing his name to this advice, as he suspected that women would rather hear from other women who knew their way around a kitchen. The pile of questions pouring in from the puzzle contest reinforced the need for a female cooking authority, somebody who could gracefully answer any kitchen questions that customers might have. The departments answer to this issue was to invent a female chief of correspondence, a fictitious woman they named Betty Crocker.

The last name, Crocker, came from the recently retired director of Washburn-Crosby, William G. Crocker.  Betty was chosen as a first name for its wholesome, cheerful sound.

True, both are fictional characters in the food industry.    But even Quaker Oats admits the “Aunt Jemima” character was based on a racial stereotype.  Betty Crocker was represented in her ads as the wholesome, contemporary American housewife.  Aunt Jemima was portrayed as an archaic, servant based on a blackface character.   If you cannot understand why that is insulting to us, I don’t know what else to say!

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