Jere Downs, Courier-Journal, October 3, 2014
Born a slave in Kentucky in 1834, Nancy Green was the first Aunt Jemima “Mammy.”
Nearly a century has gone by and 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 S. 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, the current owner of the brand, said in response to the lawsuit last month 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,” said the statement from Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. “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.”
In addition, documents in the lawsuit are riddled with advertising saying that the recipes are 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 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.”