From Pancakes to Politics: The Story of the ‘Real’ Aunt Jemima

The Real Story of Aunt Jemima..
The Aunt Jemima brand is a well-known pancake mix and syrup brand that has been in existence for over 130 years. While there is a rumor that the product itself was invented by Nancy Green, a former slave, the brand was created by Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood in 1889 in St. Joseph, Missouri. The brand’s original purpose was to create a self-rising pancake mix that was easy to make and delicious. (1)

The name “Aunt Jemima” was inspired by a popular song at the time called “Old Aunt Jemima,” which portrayed a happy, friendly black maid. To promote the brand, Rutt and Underwood hired Nancy Green to portray the Aunt Jemima character at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Green’s portrayal helped popularize the brand, and she became closely associated with the character.

Problematic Origins
Throughout the years, the Aunt Jemima character evolved into a stereotypical depiction of an African-American woman, perpetuating racial stereotypes. The character was portrayed as a mammy figure, a term used to describe a loyal, nurturing, and submissive black domestic worker. The brand’s imagery and advertising campaigns reinforced these harmful stereotypes.

In recent decades, there has been growing criticism of the Aunt Jemima brand and its racially insensitive imagery. Activists, scholars, and consumers have argued that the character perpetuated harmful stereotypes and denied the complex and diverse experiences of African-American women. There were calls for a name change and a reexamination of the brand’s history.

In response to this criticism, the Quaker Oats Company, a subsidiary of PepsiCo that owns the Aunt Jemima brand, announced in June 2020 that they would be retiring the Aunt Jemima name and logo. They acknowledged the brand’s origins in racial stereotypes and committed to creating a more inclusive and equitable future. The company also pledged to donate $5 million over the course of five years to support the black community.

After an extensive review process involving consumers, employees, and stakeholders, the Aunt Jemima brand officially changed its name to the Pearl Milling Company in February 2021. The new name pays homage to the original milling company that created the self-rising pancake mix that eventually became Aunt Jemima.

This was well-received by some, but slammed by others. Some say that this should have happened a long time ago. Their argument is for the same reasons that Quaker removed the brand: It perpetuates a stereotype that is based on slavery. Others, however, say that it removes Nancy Green’s legacy. This legacy, however, is often thought to be something that it’s not. (2)

Rumors That Spread Online
There was another side of this controversy, which involves the original Aunt Jemima, Nancy Green. Rumors spread online that it was her who had created the products and that Rutt and Underwood stole her recipe and likeness with no credit and little compensation given to her. Patricia Dickson, for example, tweeted the following, which was widely shared on Facebook:

“Nancy Green, (aka Aunt Jemima) was born into slavery. She was a magnificent cook. When she was ‘freed’ she rolled her talent into a cooking brand that (General Mills) bought & used her likeness. She died in 1923 as one of America’s first black millionaires,”

This, as we know, is not true. Nancy Green was born a slave. When she was 59 years old, the Pearl Milling Company, who had purchased Aunt Jemima from Rutt and Underwood, hired her to travel across the country portraying Aunt Jemima. She continued to play this role until she died in 1923 at age 89, when she was hit by a car. Green made the Pearl Milling Company massive profits in her 30 years for them. Some say she was well paid; however, there is no evidence that she made any money based on the success of the product, just her own wages. There is no real evidence that she was paid equally or well.

Rutt and Underwood had created the recipe for self-rising pancake mix themselves through trial and error. With little knowledge of how to market their product, they sold it to the Pearl Milling Company. For this reason, Quaker decided to rebrand the product line to this name as a hark back to the company that made Aunt Jemima a huge success.

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