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.