The real history of Aunt Jemima and the brand’s first model Nancy Green
Several brands are revising their logos and characters and acknowledging their branding’s racist roots in the wake of a similar move by Aunt Jemima. Since the breakfast company’s announcement that it would retire the brand, many have wondered about the history behind the character on the ubiquitous syrup bottle.
A wave of protests and renewed discussions on racism followed the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, during an encounter with police in Minneapolis. Many large companies have indicated their support for Black Lives Matter and other social causes, while others have been the subject of criticism for their logos and characters deemed to be stereotypes and racist caricatures.
Aunt Jemima, the breakfast food company, is a brand which has long received criticism due to its logo that features a smiling Black woman featured on its products. Previous iterations of the logo have received criticism throughout the years for perpetuating a “mammy” stereotype.
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The company announced that it would be removing the image and changing its name, acknowledging the “need for systemic change.”
Aunt Jemima’s move has prompted some critics to argue that removing the logo would be erasing the legacy and success of the brand’s original model, Nancy Green. But the real history of Green and the Aunt Jemima brand tells a different story.
The “Mammy“ stereotype
The ”Mammy“ caricature is one rooted in racism that depicts a Black woman as pleased and content with serving white masters. According to Ferris University, images of mammies benefited economic and social interests of white America, and they were depictions that acted to uphold the idea of slavery as a benevolent institution.
“The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white "family," but often treated her own family with disdain," according to the school.
One of the most notable and iconic depictions of the stereotype was in the 1939 sweeping Civil War epic, “Gone With the Wind.” Hattie McDaniel starred as Mammy, a devoted Black caretaker to a wealthy white family.
Images of Mammy-type characters have also appeared on commercial goods in the United States over the years, with Ferris University citing Aunt Jemima as the most successful usage of the stereotype.
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The first Aunt Jemima
In 1889, Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood developed the logo for a new ready-made pancake mix, according to The New York Times.
The name for the brand came from a song called “Old Aunt Jemima” that Rutt heard being sung by a blackface performer in a similar headscarf and clothing to what the model would eventually wear in their logo.
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According to the African American Registry (AAREG), the two men sold their pancake mix formula to R.T. Davis’ company. Davis then located the 56-year-old Nancy Green, a former slave, to serve as the brand’s “living trademark.”
Upon expansion of the brand, Green would act as the Aunt Jemima character while showing off the product at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago.
Green would make appearances at fairs, grocery stores and events, according to Ferris State University.
In 1923, she died in a car crash. Two years later, the brand was sold to the Quaker Oats Company. Several women would then take on the role of Aunt Jemima over the years.
Was Green a millionaire?
Much of the criticism over the removal of the Aunt Jemima logo is based on the claim that it’s erasing the purported success of Green, whom some social media users say died as a millionaire.
The present evidence doesn’t support that assertion. Citing Micki McElya’s “Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth Century America,” Snopes said that Green indicated her occupation as a cook in 1900. “While this may have referred to her job demonstrating pancake mix as Aunt Jemima, in 1910, she was working as a ‘housekeeper,’'” according to Snopes.
In their analysis of Green’s financial background, Snopes also cites M.M. Manring, another author who has written about Aunt Jemima. “All of the available evidence, such as it is, would suggest that she was almost certainly not conspicuously wealthy,” Manning writes.
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Present and past litigation
According to USA Today, a lawsuit for $2 billion was recently filed on behalf of Green’s heirs and descendants of other women who have played the role of Jemima over the years.
In 2014, another lawsuit was filed by D.W. Hunter, the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, another woman who played Aunt Jemima, on behalf of her heirs, stating that Harrington was cheated out of the rightful royalty money owed to her by Quaker Oats, according to the Chicago Tribune. That lawsuit was later thrown out.
"Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history," said Hunter, according to USA Today.