So, the Quaker Oats and PepsiCo Companies just all of sudden realized 131 years later that the mammy-like caricature, the Aunt Jemima brand is racist. Growing up, I remember seeing these slaves on the box (Aunt Jemima, Cream of Wheat, and Uncle Ben's) in my cabinets not knowing the history.
The removal of the Confederate flags, statues, and now stereotypical images is just one step of many that this country needs to recognize that African Americans have been dealing with this racism on a daily basis.
The Aunt Jemima image has evolved over the years from a dark-skinned, obese, wide white-eyed, big red lips, wearing a bandana with broken English language saying "Ise in town, Honey," "Tempt Yo' Appetite, and "Perk up yo' family's appetite with Aunt Jemima Buckwheats" to a slim, brown-skinned woman with a perm with curls and wearing pearl earrings.
For the past couple of years, I have been collecting memorabilia, researching, and traveling to locate the history of several women who portrayed Aunt Jemima either by appearances at events and/or on the radio.
Nancy Green was the first woman to portray Aunt Jemima. She was born a slave in 1834 in Kentucky. She moved to Chicago to work as a caretaker.
Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood of the Pearl Milling Co. developed Aunt Jemima, in 1889 and sold the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Co. to R.T. Davis in 1890. R.T. Davis discovered and hired Green as the spokesperson at the age of 56. She made her first debut in 1893 at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago where she sold 50,000 orders of pancake mix. Her storytelling and motherly personality proclaimed her the "Pancake Queen." Green was a founding member of Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago.
On September 14, 1923, Nancy Green, at the age of 89, was killed when she was hit by a car driven by Dr. H.S. Seymour. She is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. She is buried somewhere in Section R3, Lot 2.91
In the USA Today 2014 article, a lawsuit for $2 billion was filed on behalf of Green’s heirs and descendants of other women who portrayed Jemima against PepsiCo for royalties
Sherry Williams, the founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, has been working tirelessly for several years to get a headstone for Nancy Green. She has been raising money to get Green a monument that is long overdue. To donate please go to: https://www.facebook.com/donate/263496605064624/10100590644246353/
Driving into Hawkins, TX, you will see a sign that says "Welcome to the City of Hawkins, Pancake Capital of Texas, Home of Lillian Richard, Aunt Jemima.
Richard was born on March 23, 1891. In 1925 Richard traveled around the country portraying Aunt Jemima. She retired in 1940 after working for Quaker Oats for 23 years when she suffered a stroke.
Richard died July 4, 1956, and is buried at Fouke Memorial Cemetery in TX. In 2001, the city council of Hawkins declared Lillian Richard Day. There is a historical marker dedicated to Lillian Richard outside of Hawkins, TX.
The family of Lillian Richard is not happy the company is removing the image of Aunt Jemima. A big part of their legacy is the Aunt Jemima brand and they feel that removing the Aunt Jemima's image will erase the history of Lillian Richard.
Maude Woodfork was born in 1892 in Lebanon, TX. She attended Tennessee State College studying dramatics and appeared on a Los Angeles Times radio station program. She moved to Chicago to pursue a career as an actress. She taught dramatics at Work Progress Administration (WPA)
Woodfork auditioned for a radio part with Quaker Oats and beat out 80 other actresses. Her annual salary was in the five-digit figures.
Maud A. Woodfork died in 1965. Her crypt is at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, IL. Her name on the crypt is different. Her first name is Maud without the E. Hugh C. Swift is interred in the same crypt as Woodfork. I would assume this is her husband.
Death Certificate of Maud Woodfork/Maude Swift
Edith Wilson was born on September 2, 1896. Wilson was a blues singer, actress and vaudeville performer. Wilson was one of the first African American actresses to allowed to perform on the White vaudeville circuit. She has performed with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and Cab Calloway. Wilson took the role of Kingfish's mother-in-law on the Amos and And radio program. She also appeared with Humphrey Bogart in ''To Have and Have Not.''
In 1946, Wilson worked for Quaker Oats as Aunt Jemima in public appearances, radio, and television. She quit her portrayal of Aunt Jemima in 1956 after receiving criticism from the African American community.
Wilson died March 30, 1981, and is buried at Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens South in Glenwood, IL. Unfortunately, she does not have a headstone. The cemetery has had several owners and that they don't know where she is buried but she is in Section E.
I went to the Woodson Regional Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature in Chicago where Edith Wilson's personal photographs, programs, memorabilia are housed. I spent several hours reading her personal documentations. It was an amazing feeling knowing that Edith Wilson once touched these precious and important documents.
This letter is from a widow, I assume, needed some money and wanted to sell Edith Wilson an Abraham Lincoln penny.
Edith Wilson's paychecks from her employment as Aunt Jemima with The Quaker Oats Company.
Rosa Washington Riles
Little is known about Rosa Washington Riles. She was born in Red Oak, OH in 1901. She portrayed Aunt Jemima from the 1930s until 1948.
Riles is buried at the historic Red Oak Presbyterian Church Cemetery beside her parents, husband, and daughter. The church is listed on the National Register and was part of the Underground Railroad. The church has a small museum for Rosa Washington Riles.
Rosie Lee Moore
Rosa Lee Moore Hall was born in 1899 in Robertson County, Texas. She moved to Oklahoma City, OK working for Quaker Oats. While working in the advertising department she learned there was a search for a new Aunt Jemima. Hall portrayed Aunt Jemima from 1950 to 1967 and created a new syrup. Hall would visit family members on Christmas and cook pancakes and talk about portraying Aunt Jemima.
Hall died February 12, 1967, when she suffered a heart attack on her way to church. She is buried at Hammond Colony Cemetery in the family plot in Black Jack, TX. Her grave was unmarked for several years until 1988 when a headstone was installed. Her grave was declared a historical landmark.
The great-niece of Hall was interviewed by KBRX on the removal of the name and image of Aunt Jemima. ”I feel like it’s time, you know? I do. I’m not upset about it. You know, hey it’s a good brand but I think it’s time with everything that’s going on, I think it’s time to make a change.”
Anna Short Harrington
Anna Short Harrington was born in Marlboro County, SC in 1897. She moved to Syracuse, NY, and worked as a cook at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house and wealthy white people. She portrayed Aunt Jemima from 1935 to 1949.
She died at the age of 58 and is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, NY. John Troy McQueen wrote a biography of her called "The story of Aunt Jemima.
In 2014, the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the parent companies of the “Aunt Jemima” brand prevented Harrington and her descendants from receiving royalties associated with the character. The lawsuit was thrown out due to not having legal standing to sue.
The above photo above from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University is Aylene Lewis. She worked at the Aunt Jemima's Kitchen at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. She would cheerfully greet customers, served tables, sang, and took pictures.
On National Pancake Day, the restaurant would host the Aunt Jemima Pancake Race. The participants wore official Aunt Jemima pancake race apron while carrying griddles with pancakes. The participants would run to the finish line while tossing pancakes over ribbons strung across the course while trying to catch pancakes back in the griddles. The winner
received $100.00 and a picture taken with Lewis wearing her Aunt Jemima outfit,
There were 21 Aunt Jemima's Kitchen locations across the United States, including Bristol, England, and Toronto, Canada.
Little information is known about Lewis. She died in 1964.
I just recently found out about Mrs. Ione Brown. She was a community activist in Minneapolis, MN advocating for senior rights and better housing. She founded a senior center a few blocks from where George Floyd was murdered. Between the 1940s-1950s, Brown worked as a traveling Aunt Jemima going to fairs doing pancake-making demonstrations.
There were women who portrayed Aunt Jemima who were not black.
Italian actress, Tess Gardella was born in December 1894. She performed as Aunt Jemima in blackface in the Broadway production "Show Boat," in 1927, the Aunt Jemima radio program in the 1930s and the film "A Swing Opera in 1938.
She died January 3, 1950, and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, NY.
I took a picture of her grave, but can't find it. This picture was taken by Brooklyn Bridge Baby on flickr. Once I find my photos, I will replace the photo below.
Harriette Widmer portrayed Aunt Jemima on the air. She was an actress from Chicago noted for portraying African American women characters. She was the first to appear with Amos 'n' Andy on their program and the first woman to have a blackface part with the Greater Sinclair Minstrels. She was heard frequently over the NBC networks.
Frank L. White
There is very little information about Frank L. White. He is claimed to be the man on the Cream of Wheat box. The information I found was he was born in Barbados around 1867 and worked in Chicago for a period of time as a cook.
White died in 1938 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Leslie, MI. The research continues.
The Coon Chicken Inn was a successful chain restaurant from the 1920s to the 1950s founded by Maxon Lester Graham. He had three locations in Salt Lake City, UT, Portland, OR and Seattle, WA. The front of the restaurant was a dark black man, with red lips, wearing a porter's cap and winking. Entering the door was going through his mouth.
Per Blackpast.com, Graham adopted the Coon caricature and created the “Coon head” as a gimmick to attract customers in the emerging age of roadside restaurants, novelty architecture, and automobile convenience. Graham additionally promoted the chain through the distribution of postcards, newspaper advertisements, matchboxes, children’s fans, spare tire covers, and delivery cars, all of which prominently featured the Coon Chicken Inn logo. The Coon logo saturated the restaurants’ interiors as well. Plates, forks, menus, and placemats featured the caricature, as did menu items such as the “Baby Coon Special” and the “Coon Fried Steak.”
African Americans opposed this blatant display of racial hostility. In 1930, the Seattle branch of theNational Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)and Seattle’s African American newspaperThe Northwest Enterpriseprotested the opening of the local Coon Chicken Inn by threatening Graham with a lawsuit for libel and defamation of race. In response, Graham agreed to change the style of advertising by removing the word “Coon” from the restaurant’s delivery car, repainting the “Coon head” entrance to the restaurant, and canceling an order of 1,000 automobile tire covers. This small stride, however, was not enough to fully erase the image of the caricature from Seattle. Graham violated his agreement with the NAACP but managed to evade the lawsuit by changing the color of the Coon logo from black to blue.
I took my nieces to the Jim Crow Museum at the campus of Ferris State University in Big Rapids, MI. The museum was founded by curator, Dr. David Pilgrim.
There are over 9,000 artifacts that were created between the 1870-1960s. The museum has displays of racist memorabilia such as mammy candles, picaninny ashtrays, sambo masks, lawn jockeys, Jim Crow, and even Barack Obama.
The museum is a must-see to educate children about the negative racist stereotypical images of African Americans.
Due to the pandemic, the museum has a link to a virtual tour. https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=8miUGt2wCtB
I went to the Quaker Oats website, and they have completely omitted the history of Aunt Jemima. I agree that the image should be removed, but Quaker Oats' success was because of these women that portrayed Aunt Jemima, so that part of history should not be erased.
Please view my interview on "The Real Chat Daddy." I talked about the history of stereotypical images of African Americans.
I hope you enjoyed this blog. There is so much to learn and I'm looking forward to educating myself and others. Each one, teach one.