Editor's Note, June 18, 2020: On June 17, Quaker Oats announced plans to retire the Aunt Jemima name and image. In a statement, a company spokesperson acknowledged that "Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype." Read Smithsonian magazine's article on the decision here, and learn about a 2014 court case related to the controversial imagery's history below. The language in the 2014 piece has been updated to adhere to the magazine's current style.
In 1889, two entrepreneurs created a ready-made pancake mix and named it after a popular character from contemporary minstrel shows—Aunt Jemima. Their company was struggling, though, and they sold it off, complete with Aunt Jemima pancake mix, to another milling company owner named R.T. Davis. It was Davis who had the idea of hiring a real person as a spokeswoman for the new brand.
Nancy Green was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1834. After Davis picked her to personify Aunt Jemina in 1890, her face became famous, and she went on to travel the country in promotion of the breakfast line.
In 1935, another woman, Anna S. Harrington, began playing Aunt Jemima. Now, two of her great-grandsons are suing Quaker Oats, the current owner of the brand. The suit claims that Green and Harrington both helped develop the brand's self-rising pancake mix recipe (Harrington was known for her pancakes even before she was hired) and that they were promised compensation. The great-grandsons are suing for $2 billion in unpaid royalties and damages.
“Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history,” writes one the great-grandsons in the suit, according to the Consumerist.
However, Quaker Oats has taken the stance in response that Aunt Jemima wasn’t a real person.
“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. “While we cannot discuss the details of pending litigation, we do not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit.”
Pepsico says it has not found any contracts between Harrington and the company, or any of the other women who lent their likeness as Aunt Jemima. Even if the contracts are produced, it’s possible that the statute of limitations will have passed.
Quaker Oats first registered the Aunt Jemima trademark in 1937. In 1989, Aunt Jemima’s appearance was updated—perhaps to avoid perpetuating the harmful "Mammy" stereotype that African American women were happy and loyal enslaved individuals. Her head scarf was traded in for pearl earrings and a lace collar.