The famous “Aunt Jemima” breakfast brand has been rebranded into the Pearl Milling Company. The new name pays homage to the mill built in 1888 that began producing the well-known pancake mix in 1889. The brand has previously been criticized for its racist origins, which involved a caricature of a Black “mammy” character from a popular minstrel. The company announced the decision to rebrand in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

“Last June, PepsiCo and The Quaker Oats Company made a commitment to change the name and image of Aunt Jemima, recognizing that they do not reflect our core values. While the name on the box has changed, the great tasting products — the ‘pearl’ inside the familiar red box – remains the same,” Pearl Milling Company said in a statement at the time.

The History of Aunt Jemima

The Aunt Jemima brand began in 1889 by the owners Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood. The company brought on a Black woman to be the face of the brand. Nancy Green was a slave before she worked as a cook on the South Side. She was hired to wear an apron and headscarf while serving pancakes to people at the fairgrounds called “The White City.” She eventually played this role at the Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, where she made pancakes and told romanticized stories about “the good old plantation days.”

Later, Lillian Richard took up the mantle and played “Aunt Jemima” for over 20 years. Anna Robinson began to portray Aunt Jemima in 1933. Anna Short Harrington then took her place. She had been born on a plantation in South Carolina where she worked with her family as sharecroppers. In 1927, a white family in New York “bought” Harrington to become their maid. She worked as a cook at a fraternity house and for wealthy white people, which included Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. Then, a Quaker Oats representative hired her after seeing her make pancakes at the 1935 New York State Fair. After that, Harrington became the face of the brand, and a national celebrity, as she traveled around the country to make pancakes in character as “Aunt Jemima.”

 

Actress Aylene Lewis took the role in the 1950s and 60s. But in 1989, the company updated the image of Aunt Jemima to what they described as a “contemporary look” with a lace collar and pearl earrings. Ethel Ernestine Harper was the last real woman to represent the brand, until 1958, when she became a Black history teacher and radio host.

“This Aunt Jemima logo was an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own,” Riché Richardson, an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2015. “Visually, the plantation myth portrayed her as an asexual, plump black woman wearing a headscarf.” [1]

“This is an injustice for me and my family”

However, not everyone agrees with the rebranding. After the 2020 announcement, a great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington spoke out against the rebrand, saying it erases her legacy. “This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir,” said Larnell Evans Sr. in an interview with Patch. “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.” [2]

Quaker Oats had also used Harrington’s pancake recipe for their pancake mix, according to Evans and his nephew in a 2014 lawsuit where they sought $3 billion from Quaker Oats for not paying royalties to Harrington’s descendants. Evans lost the case; the judge said he and his nephew weren’t executors of Harrington’s estate and therefore didn’t have the standing to sue in her name.

 

“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,” he said. “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?”

Evans is a 66-year-old Marine Corps veteran living on disability in North Carolina, and he states that his family and those like his deserve more than just acknowledgement from companies who had profited off of racist images before erasing the evidence with a rebrand.

 

“We’re still proud of her”

However, Vera Harris, a descendant of Lillian Richard, supports the rebrand — for the most part. “I understand the images that white America portrayed us years ago. They painted themselves Black and they portrayed that as us,” said Harris. “I understand what Quaker Oats is doing because I’m Black and I don’t want a negative image promoted. However, I just don’t want her legacy lost, because if her legacy is swept under the rug and washed away, it’s as if she never was a person.” [3]

Similarly, Marcus Hayes, a great nephew of Nancy Green — the original “Aunt Jemima” — comments on the 2020 decision. “I do understand the sensitivity of the name and the brand,” he said. “But at the same time, I don’t want Nancy Green’s legacy and what she did under that name to be lost.” [4]

Harris adds that Richard worked for Quaker Oats during a time period where they were no jobs for Black people, especially women. “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.”

 

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