“Aunt Jemima’s” heirs have brought a lawsuit for a share of the profits made using their ancestors’ images. “Nothing could be finer than the taste of Aunt Jemima in the morning,” except, perhaps, a side of fairness and equity. Racist stereotypes have been used to advertise products for centuries. The descendants of the two women who portrayed Aunt Jemima from 1890 to 1946 are suing PepsiCo and the Quaker Oats Company, the current owners of the brand, for $2 billion and a share of future earnings. They claim their ancestors helped create the Aunt Jemima brand, contributed to the recipe and were promised royalties.
At first glance it seems that the question of whether the families deserve the money hinges on whether the two women were independent contractors paid for a specific service, or whether they were part of the building of the company and given payment each time their images were used. Looking deeper into the business dynamics raises the question of whether the women were taken advantage of by the original milling company and by Quaker Oats. Neither woman had enough education or business knowledge to look out for their interests. The lawsuit asserts that the companies exploited the women.
Nancy Green was the first “Aunt Jemima.” She was born a slave in the 1830s in Somerset Creek in eastern Kentucky. After the Civil War gave her freedom she moved north to Chicago. There she found work as a chef for Judge Walker, who suggested to the R.T. Davis Milling Company that they hire Green to sell their ready-made pancake mix. The R.T. Davis Milling Company had bought the Pearl Milling Company in 1890, one year after the Pearl Milling Company had begun selling excess flour in a white paper sack with the other dry ingredients necessary for ready-mix pancakes. Nancy Green became the face of Aunt Jemima Pancakes. (“Aunt Jemima” was a vaudeville character in minstrel shows of the 19th century.) Green made a name for the brand during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She employed her gregarious personality to talk to everyone about her life as a slave as she promoted the pancake mix. Her image and personality became synonymous with the product. The product was advertised as a secret of the south brought north and shared with the world by a convivial “black auntie.” Her descendants also claim she improved the recipe by suggesting the addition of powdered milk for flavor. Nancy Green played the part of Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923. By that time, Quaker Oats owned the brand.
In the 1930s Quaker Oats decided Aunt Jemima pancake mix needed a new live face. Anna Robinson was hired for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and enjoyed a brief, successful stint. In 1935 Anna Short Harrington was chosen for the role. Harrington was discovered flipping pancakes at a fair. She was born in 1897 to sharecroppers in Marlboro County, South Carolina. She moved her five children to Syracuse, New York where she began to cook for a living. She performed as Aunt Jemima for fourteen years until she could buy a house and retire. Furthermore, she changed the core the recipe by adding fat extracted from potatoes.
Harrington’s two great-grandsons filed the lawsuit on behalf of the heirs of Green and Harrington. D.W. Hunter, one of the plaintiffs, says that his ancestor’s image was abused.
The events of the lawsuit occurred long ago. Statutes of limitations would be expired for misleading contracts unless the naivete of the two women is taken into account. The heart of the matter lies in the contracts the women had with the companies. A spokesperson from PepsiCo says a search for old contracts has not turned up any which are relevant to the case. PepsiCo asserts that the Aunt Jemima character was never meant to portray a real person, but is simply a fictional type. Allen Adamson of Lander Associates, a firm specializing in branding, says that dropping the name and image would damage the brand.
Hunter, a civil rights activist, maintains that the case is about economic justice. He says it is a battle to regain the civil rights of the people involved, If he wins, he plans to use the money to aid disenfranchised female farmers in Africa and Brazil.
The courts will have to sort out if this case is about a business taking advantage of vulnerable women or if it is about greedy people trying to take advantage of a successful company. “Aunt Jemima’s” heirs are suing for a share of the profits made using their ancestors’ images. They cannot rid history of the racist trope, but they can ensure this exploitation of African-American women comes to an end.
By: Rebecca Savastio