There are some parts of history we know because of the narrative that is widely projected. Then there are aspects of history that we accept because we don’t want to delve into the sad truths that lie buried just beneath the surface. Case in point is the sad story behind AUNT Jemima…
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis officers, protests have swept across the country, bringing attention to the Black Lives Matter movement while also shining a spotlight on systemic racism and police brutality. With a greater awareness being raised over the past few weeks, companies with ties to racism in one way or another are being put under a microscope.
The latest is Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima, which traces its roots back to 1889. The mascot was inspired by a former slave named Nancy Green, who was to look like a ‘mammy’ caricature. According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, the ‘mammy’ image served as the “political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America.” An opinion column in The New York Times from 2015 by Riche Richardson called for the company to remove the image as it was linked to “Southern racism. She mentioned how the ‘Aunt Jemima’ name came from a minstrel song, “Old Aunt Jemima.” Minstrel songs were performed by white performers in blackface. In regards to the ‘mammy’ caricature, Richardson explained how the image portrayed a “devoted and submissive servant” to her white owners.
With much more attention being placed on racism with statues in some states being taken down and major sports like NASCAR banning the use of the Confederate flags at its events, social media has finally begun to take notice of what has been sitting on the grocery shelf all of these years. [Source]
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The world knew her as “Aunt Jemima,” but her given name was Nancy Green. The famous Aunt Jemima recipe was not her recipe but she became the advertising world’s first living trademark.
Miss Green was born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky. Chris Rutt, a newspaperman, and Charles Underwood bought the Pearl Milling Company and had the original idea of developing and packaging a ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour. To survive in a highly competitive business, the men needed an image for their product.
In 1889, Rutt attended a vaudeville show where he heard a catchy tune called “Aunt Jemima” sung by a blackface performer who was wearing an apron and bandanna headband. He decided to call their pancake flour “Aunt Jemima.”
Rutt and Underwood were broke, so in 1890, they sold the formula to the R.T. Davis Milling Company. Mr. Davis began looking for a Black woman to employ as a living trademark for his product, and he found Nancy Green in Chicago. She was 56 years old. The Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix was introduced in St. Joseph, MO.
In 1893, the Davis Milling Company aggressively began an all-out promotion of “Aunt Jemima” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Green, as “Aunt Jemima,” demonstrated the pancake mix and served thousands of pancakes. Green was a hit, friendly, a good storyteller, and a good cook. Her warm and appealing personality made her the ideal “Aunt Jemima,” a living trademark. Her exhibition booth drew so many people that special policemen were assigned to keep the crowds moving. The Davis Milling Company received over 50,000 orders, and Fair officials awarded Nancy Green a medal and certificate for her showmanship.
She was proclaimed “Pancake Queen.” She was signed to a lifetime contract and traveled on promotional tours all over the country. Flour sales were up all year and pancakes were no longer considered exclusively for breakfast.
Nancy Green maintained this job until a car crash in Chicago killed her on September 23, 1923. The Davis Company also ran into money problems, and the Quaker Oats Company purchased the Aunt Jemima Mills in 1925.