May 212017

Note: This story is from the September-October, 2014 issue of the Gypsy Journal

We’ve all sat down to a breakfast of pancakes and Aunt Jemima syrup at one time or another. While munching away, did you ever look at the picture of the large African American woman on the label and wonder if she was real? You may be surprised to learn that several women portrayed the pancake princess over the years.

Wikipedia says that the inspiration for Aunt Jemima was an old minstrel show song called Old Aunt Jemima and that the Aunt Jemima character was prominent in minstrel and vaudeville shows in the late 19th century. Some accounts claim that the character was actually a white actor in blackface, who may have been a German immigrant.

In 1890, the R. T. Davis Milling Company, which produced Aunt Jemima pancake mix, hired a former slave named Nancy Green to be their spokesperson. Until her death in 1923, Green represented the company, including appearing at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893.

The Quaker Oats Company acquired the Aunt Jemima brand in 1926, and in 1933 hired Anna Robinson, reported to weigh 350 pounds, to play Aunt Jemima as part of their promotion at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

She was replaced by Anna Short Harrington in 1935, who played Aunt Jemima for fourteen years. Born in North Carolina in 1897, Harrington supported five children and was able to buy her family a large house with her earnings.

Over the years several other women played the role of pancake icon and things get cloudy trying to identify who they were and when. Rosie Moore was the last woman to represent the character Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company, touring the country as a company spokesperson until the late 1960s. Her headstone at the Hammond Colony Cemetery in Robertson County, Texas, said she played Aunt Jemima for 25 years.

In the Red Oak Presbyterian Church Cemetery a few miles north of Ripley, Ohio we found the grave of yet another Aunt Jemima. According to her gravestone, Rosa Washington Riles was the third Aunt Jemima employed by Quaker Oats, recruited in the 1930s and touring until 1948. Though I couldn’t find any official documentation by the company of her employment, at least one website said she was employed as a cook in the home of a Quaker Oats executive names Mills and went out for pancake demonstrations at her employer’s request.

While many women played the character, a lot of black women felt that the portrayal of a slave-era “mammy” was offensive and hurt the image of African American women. The term “Aunt Jemima” became slang to describe a female version of the offensive label “Uncle Tom.” Current Aunt Jemima products depict a slender, more modern woman with a stylish hairdo.

To me it doesn’t matter who the “real” Aunt Jemima was, as long as my pancakes are covered with lots of her sweet syrup.

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Thought For The Day – You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

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  11 Responses to “In Search Of Aunt Jemima”

  1. This is a pretty insensitive blog Nick. How do you think an African-American person would feel if they read something so demeaning? Did you get the memo that it’s the 21st century? I’m disappointed. I expected better of you.

  2. Susan, since when does talking about a product that is currently available on grocery store shelves make someone a racist? I didn’t get the memo about that.

  3. You were not just talking about a product you were rehashing a racist stereotype, which only perpetuates the myth of the overweight uneducated black mammy. As you yourself said in the blog above, it began with minstrel shows. I’m sorry you are not able to grasp the concept or realize how insensitive you are being.

  4. Nick love this piece of history. Sorry Susan but history is history. It can’t be changed. To not talk about it is the sin.
    Nick speaks of history of that day of a very popular product eaten by generations. Very interesting and broadens one’s horizon. If you think this was inappropriate
    Than your one that seems to generate chaos and discontent over every minute thing. I don’t think I ever looked at her picture and thought about the lady on the bottle but the delicious syrup inside.

  5. Good gravy, are some people so hyper-sensitive that they can be offended by a product that has been on the store shelves for years. They need to find themselves a safe space in their own house and not venture out. It does not speak well of people in our nation if they let political correctness over-ride common sense.

  6. Great job at describing the history of a product many use daily. As a historian there is so much in the past that does not fit today’s mores. History needs to be remembered.

  7. PC run amok! Yet this type cannot see where the problems are. Sad

  8. I believe, Susan, you are reading too much into it. Perhaps you need to read it again and consider the totality of the piece. Nick points out her portrayal in history and how the character (yes, it is a character of Quaker) evolved over time.

    Thank you for sharing the history of Aunt Jemima. Sadly, I never gave it much thought if it were a real person portraying a character or just a character.

    Not sure I get how Nick is racially insensitive for indicating historical facts. It was not an opinion. If anyone should be apologetic and I am not suggestion anyone should be, maybe Susan should pen a well-thought letter on the subject to the good folks at Quaker. After all, this has been their marketing tool for many years.

  9. Some one needs a safe space. What about Betty Crocker? Can we hear the story of her?

    This reminds me of taking my niece to Disney a few years ago. We stopped at the South of the Border campground…’s called Pedros. Niece was horrified! Said it was racist. Good grief…… would Guisippes’ Italian restaurant be racist? Would Wongs’ Chinese restaurant be racist? I need to know these things. Don’t want to offend anyone.

  10. Susan…I’m sorry you cannot grasp how ridiculous you are being….If we go by your reasoning, I guess we better skip going to every historical monument/museum, etc., which involves the Civil War which talks about slavery and slaves…seriously, get a grip….history is just that history, and if we don’t know and understand it, we are doomed to repeat it. Nick…nice write up…enjoyed learning about the Lady on the bottle.

  11. Kathleen Adams, unfortunately, what you’re describing is happening right before our eyes. Four Civil War monuments were just removed from New Orleans. The new mayor of St. Louis is having the Confederate Memorial removed from Forest Park and possibly destroyed. A museum Civil War museum in North Carolina has just announced that it’s closing because the State Legislature has decreed the removal of all Confederate flags out of concern for offending someone.

    You might want to visit Stone Mountain before someone orders the sculpture blasted from its fact, or Mount Rushmore before it occurs to someone that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves and are therefore unworthy of respect.

    The inmates are running the asylum.

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