The Real Story of Aunt Jemima
If you were raised in North America, chances are you’re well-acquainted with the Aunt Jemima brand. Whether it was enjoying pancakes from their mixes, their pancake syrups, or a combination of both, you’ve likely encountered their products at least once or twice.
However, in recent years, the brand’s parent company, Quaker, decided to alter the name and branding of Aunt Jemima products. The reason behind this change was the brand’s problematic and racist origins. This is the authentic narrative of Aunt Jemima.
The Aunt Jemima brand, famous for its pancake mix and syrup, boasts a remarkable legacy spanning over 130 years. Although there’s a rumor suggesting that Nancy Green, a former slave, invented the product, the brand was actually established by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood back in 1889 in St. Joseph, Missouri. The brand’s initial objective was to craft a self-rising pancake mix that was both convenient to prepare and delectable.
The Influence of “Old Aunt Jemima”
The appellation “Aunt Jemima” originated from a prevailing song of its era, “Old Aunt Jemima,” which portrayed a jovial and cordial black housekeeper. In order to enhance brand awareness, Rutt and Underwood engaged the services of Nancy Green to perform the role of Aunt Jemima at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The way in which Green portrayed the character contributed considerably to the brand’s success, and she developed a strong emotional attachment to the character.
Over the years, the Aunt Jemima character underwent a transformation into a stereotypical representation of an African-American woman, perpetuating racial stereotypes. The character was portrayed in the mold of a “mammy” figure, a term describing a loyal, nurturing, and subservient black domestic worker. The brand’s visual imagery and advertising campaigns played a role in reinforcing these harmful stereotypes.
A Call for Change
A growing body of criticism has been directed at the Aunt Jemima brand and its racially insensitive imagery over the past few decades. There have been vocal objections from activists, scholars, and consumers regarding the character’s alleged contribution to detrimental stereotypes and lack of recognition for the complex and varied experiences of African-American women. The public’s strong reaction led to demands for a reassessment of the brand’s historical context and a modification of its name.
Quaker Oats Company, a PepsiCo subsidiary that possesses the Aunt Jemima brand, issued a noteworthy declaration in June 2020 in reaction to these critiques. They committed to fostering a more inclusive and equitable future and declared their intention to retire the Aunt Jemima name and logo, acknowledging the brand’s historical association with racial prejudices. Moreover, the organization made a solemn commitment to contribute $5 million to the minority community for a duration of five years.
Following a comprehensive review process that engaged consumers, employees, and stakeholders, the Aunt Jemima brand underwent an official name change to the Pearl Milling Company in February 2021. The new name serves as a tribute to the original milling company that originally formulated the self-rising pancake mix, which ultimately evolved into Aunt Jemima.
This move by Quaker received mixed reactions. Some welcomed the change as an overdue step towards addressing racial stereotypes and promoting inclusivity. However, there were also critics who argued against the name change, claiming that it erased Nancy Green’s legacy. It is important to note, however, that Nancy Green did not create the Aunt Jemima products or the recipe and likeness associated with them, as has been incorrectly suggested.
Online rumors have circulated, alleging that Nancy Green, also known as Aunt Jemima, was the original creator of the products, and that Rutt and Underwood appropriated her recipe and likeness with little compensation offered to her. However, it’s crucial to note that these claims lack credible substantiation. Nancy Green was employed by the Pearl Milling Company, which had acquired Aunt Jemima from Rutt and Underwood. Her role involved traveling throughout the country to portray Aunt Jemima, a position she held until her passing in 1923. Although she received wages for her portrayals, there is no documented evidence to suggest that she received any additional compensation or shared in the success of the product.
Rutt and Underwood were the originators of the self-rising pancake mix recipe, having developed it through their own experimentation and ingenuity. Lacking expertise in marketing their product, they ultimately sold it to the Pearl Milling Company. Consequently, the choice to rebrand the Aunt Jemima product line as the Pearl Milling Company was rooted in a desire to honor the company that played a pivotal role in the success of Aunt Jemima.
The Controversy and Impact
The controversy surrounding the name change of Aunt Jemima reflects larger discussions about racial representation, cultural appropriation, and corporate accountability in the United States. For many, the rebranding of Aunt Jemima represents a significant and positive stride in acknowledging and addressing the negative historical impact of racial stereotypes within popular culture.
Changing the name of Aunt Jemima has been a contentious issue. While some argue that it should have happened long ago, others have criticized the removal of Aunt Jemima from packaging, incorrectly citing Nancy Green’s legacy. However, as mentioned earlier, Nancy Green’s involvement in the brand was as a hired spokesperson, and the portrayal of Aunt Jemima itself perpetuated harmful stereotypes.
It is essential to point out that the brand name of the product has been changed to Pearl Milling Company, and the traditional red label now features a photograph of an antique milling factory. The new name reflects a determination to move away from negative racial stereotypes and embrace a future that is more welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
As we continue to reflect on the history of Aunt Jemima and its transformation into the Pearl Milling Company, it is crucial to acknowledge the impact of racially insensitive branding and the importance of evolving to promote a more equitable society.
Controversy Surrounds Aunt Jemima Rebrand: Descendants Speak Out
The 2020 announcement of Aunt Jemima’s rebranding was met with mixed reactions, and not everyone was on board with the decision. One prominent dissenting voice was that of Larnell Evans Sr., the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, who once portrayed the iconic Aunt Jemima character. Evans expressed his deep concerns about the rebrand, arguing that it erased a vital part of his family’s legacy.
In an interview with Patch, Larnell Evans Sr. passionately stated, “This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir. The racism they talk about, using images from slavery, that comes from the other side — white people. This company profits off images of our slavery. And their answer is to erase my great-grandmother’s history. A Black female… It hurts.”
Anna Short Harrington not only represented Aunt Jemima but also contributed her pancake recipe to Quaker Oats for their pancake mix. This connection to the brand became a contentious issue when Evans and his nephew filed a lawsuit in 2014, seeking $3 billion from Quaker Oats for failing to pay royalties to Harrington’s descendants. Unfortunately, Evans lost the case, as the judge ruled that he and his nephew did not have the legal standing to sue on behalf of Harrington’s estate.
Evans highlighted the significance of his great-grandmother’s role, saying, “She worked for that Quaker Oats for 20 years. She traveled all the way around the United States and Canada making pancakes as Aunt Jemima for them. This woman served all those people, and it was after slavery. She worked as Aunt Jemima. That was her job… How do you think I feel as a Black man sitting here telling you about my family history they’re trying to erase?”
Larnell Evans Sr., a 66-year-old Marine Corps veteran living on disability in North Carolina, believes that his family and others like them deserve more than just acknowledgment from companies that have profited from racist images in the past, only to erase them through rebranding efforts. The debate surrounding Aunt Jemima’s rebrand continues to raise important questions about the preservation of cultural heritage, racial representation, and corporate responsibility.
This Site Was Inspired By An Interest in Protecting the Environment:
We had the privilege and joy of learning from Dr. Charlie Stine who instilled a love for the natural world through incredible field trips with the Johns Hopkins Odyssey Certificate program in Environmental Studies. At the time, the program was endorsed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Sadly, after Dr. Stine retired, the program was phased out. We hope that we honor his legacy by shining a bright light on environmental issues and sharing good news about the success of various conservation programs when possible.
Subscribe to our email newsletter to get the latest posts delivered right to your email.