Born a slave in 1834 in Kentucky, Nancy Green was the first Aunt Jemima “Mammy” in 1890.
More than century later, Aunt Jemima no longer resembles a servant, having swapped her red bandanna for pearls and soft curls in 1989.
Now a lawsuit claims that Green’s heirs as well as the descendants of other black women who appeared as Aunt Jemima deserve $2 billion and a share of future revenue from sales of the popular brand.
The federal suit, filed in Chicago in August by two great-grandsons of Anna Short Harrington, says that she and Green were key in formulating the recipe for the nation’s first self-rising pancake mix, and that Green came up with the idea of adding powdered milk for extra flavor.
“Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history,” said D.W. Hunter, one of Harrington’s great-grandsons.
But Quaker Oats, current owner of the brand, said this past month in response to the lawsuit that Aunt Jemima was never real.
“The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person,” according to a statement from Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP). “While we cannot discuss the details of pending litigation, we do not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit.”
No contracts have been located between Aunt Jemima models and their pancake bosses, according to PepsiCo correspondence with plaintiffs contained in the lawsuit.
But Harrington’s descendants contend they did exist.
Quaker Oats and other companies “made false promises to Nancy Green … and Anna Harrington,” their lawsuit says, adding that each time their “name, voice or likeness was used in connection with the products or goods, (the ladies) would receive a percentage of the monies or royalties received.”
Documents in the lawsuit show advertising claiming that the mix is Aunt Jemima’s “secret” recipe from the Old South. One ad, which shows Green serving a handsomely dressed white family, says that only she has the recipe to mix four flours — corn, wheat, rice and rye. Another calls it her “magic recipe” to “turn out dese tender, ‘licious, jiffy-quick pancakes.”
And Diane Roberts, a professor of Southern culture at Florida State University in Tallahassee and author of The Myth of Aunt Jemima, said that “Mammy” stereotype “romanticized the cruelty of slavery for a nation reconciling the trauma of the Civil War.”
“It’s one of those representations of black people that white people love because Mammy loved her white children so much,” Roberts said. “It proved to white people that we couldn’t have been that mean to black people because Mammy loves us.”
Who was Nancy Green?
Whether or not heirs of the Aunt Jemima women prevail in their lawsuit, their legacy represents whites’ common appropriation of black culinary expertise, said John van Willigen, a retired anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, who mentions Green in his new book Kentucky’s Cookbook Heritage: Two Hundred Years of Southern Cuisine and Culture.
Green “represents this idea that African American cooks were behind the scenes,” Willigen said, “especially in places like Kentucky where their culinary innovations and developments were appropriated by white ladies.”
On the AuntJemima.com website, the company’s official history says Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Co. developed Aunt Jemima, the first ready mix, in 1889 and sold the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Co. to R.T. Davis the next year.
Oral history places Green’s birth in the 1830s on a farm on Somerset Creek, six miles outside Mount Sterling in Eastern Kentucky, said Miles Hoskins, president of the Montgomery County Historical Society.
“There are no birth certificates from slave days for black people. They were property,” Hoskins said, adding local farmers from that area named Green were known to raise tobacco, hay, cattle and hogs.
During the Civil War, Mount Sterling changed hands a dozen times, with Confederates repeatedly flushing Union soldiers from the courthouse square. By war’s end, Green dwelled in a wood frame shack, which still stands, behind a grand home on Main Street, where she worked as house servant, Hoskins said.
“As soon as she was free, she left for Chicago,” he added. “When the war was over, slaves had heard about the North. She probably just wanted to forget about the whole ordeal and get out of here.”
In Chicago, Green became a cook for Judge Charles Walker, who recommended to the R.T. Davis Milling Co. that she represent the pancake mix, according to Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Marilyn Kern-Foxworth.
“She was a magnificent cook, an attractive woman of outgoing nature and friendly personality, gregarious in the extreme,” the book says.
Green’s breakthrough appearance for the Aunt Jemima brand happened in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, where she “loved crowds and loved to talk about her slave days, ” according to the book.
Green “emerged the image of a wise old cook from the Deep South of Civil War times, who had brought her secret pancake recipe to a benighted northland,” according toBlack Hunger: Food and the Politics of U.S. Identity, by University of Iowa English professor Doris Witt.
Green died in her late 80s in 1923 after a car struck her on the sidewalk in Chicago, according to her obituary in the Sunday Morning Star. She was still working as Aunt Jemima at the time, according to numerous accounts.
Quaker Oats acquired the brand in the 1920s.
The lawsuit contends that the company recruited Harrington to become Aunt Jemima while flipping pancakes in a booth at the New York State Fair in 1935. It says she then enhanced the recipe with “potato grease.”
Harrington herself was the daughter of sharecroppers who worked on a former plantation in South Carolina.
The lawsuit said neither she nor Green possessed the education or acumen to bargain fairly with the pancake companies.
“Defendants were in position to exploit Nancy Green, and Anna Harrington, that came from plantations,” the lawsuit said, adding that three of Harrington’s daughters were later recruited to represent the brand or were photographed as Aunt Jemima.
Whatever business arrangement they had is at the heart of the dispute.
“PepsiCo and Quaker are actively searching for contracts that would pertain to Ms. Anna S. Harrington, which if they exist go back 60 years or even longer. We thus far have not located these documents in the places that have been searched,” PepsiCo lawyer Dean Panos wrote in a March e-mail cited in the lawsuit.
Don Cox, a lawyer in Louisville, Ky., who has represented Kern’s Kitchen Inc. in defending its trademark Derby-Pie, said the claimants in the Aunt Jemima case are “throwing the dice.”
“This happened so long ago and continued for so long with nobody doing anything about it,” he said.
Legal standards for whether someone is misled in a contract are governed by time limits, or statutes of limitations, that likely have long expired, Cox said, adding that ignorance on the part of Green or Harrington will probably not be taken into consideration in court.
“If a person doesn’t take action within an applicable period of time, their claim goes away,” Cox said.
Hunter, Harrington’s great-grandson, said in a Sept. 29 e-mail that the case represents a “fight for the economic parity of rights of people whose civil and human rights have been violated.”
Hunter, a self-described civil-rights activist based in Minneapolis, Minn., said if he recovers proceeds from the lawsuit, he will “buy the agricultural crops from disenfranchised African women farmers that are in villages to help them make a decent living wage in Africa and Brazil.”
Painful relic of slavery
No matter the outcome of the suit, the Aunt Jemima brand has a mixed past.
Quaker Oats’ website says it stands for “warmth, nourishment and trust — qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families.”
But the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan includes her image in a traveling “Hateful Things” exhibit alongside Uncle Ben’s Rice and other period advertisements, toys and cartoons, mainly from the Civil War through segregation.
Roberts, the Florida State expert, said Aunt Jemima’s image is “reassuring” and “kindly,” but it still is a racist brand.
“Just because the Civil War was more than 100 years ago, Jim Crow doesn’t go away,” she said.