Aunt Jemima Might Have Been Real, and Her Descendants Are Suing for $2 Billion

A lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago claims that the women who have portrayed the character were exploited and bilked out of money Quaker Oats promised them.

(Photo: Jim, the Photographer/Flickr)

Oct 8, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

When does a pancake mix represent more than a combination of flour, salt, and other baking ingredients? When it’s named “Aunt Jemima.” The brand has been a staple on grocery-store shelves for decades and has stirred controversy since its debut: Both the product’s name and the box’s original image came from a minstrel show.

But was Aunt Jemima a real person, and did she create the famed pancake recipe? Those two questions are at the heart of a $2 billion federal lawsuit filed in Chicago against Quaker Oats, the producers of Aunt Jemima pancake mix.

As offensive as Aunt Jemima’s black “mammy” stereotype has often seemed, most Americans probably assume she’s a fictional character. However, the suit charges that the flapjack recipe originated with Nancy Green, who was born a slave in Kentucky in 1834 and was featured on the product’s box as Aunt Jemima starting in the 1890s. Indeed, early advertising for Aunt Jemima features Green and touts her “magic” and “secret” Old South recipe.

The suit also claims that Green and Anna S. Harrington—the black woman who portrayed the character starting in 1935—were exploited by the company and cheated out of the monetary compensation they were promised. The plantiffs are two of Harrington’s great-grandsons, and they want descendants of the women to get their pancake reparations.

According to the lawsuit, Quaker Oats and other related companies “made false promises” to the women. The suit also claims that whenever Green's or Harrington’s “name, voice or likeness was used in connection with the products or goods, [the women were told they] would receive a percentage of the monies or royalties received.” The suit alleges that that compensation never happened.

“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, according to USA Today. Hunter and the other descendants claim that contracts between the women and Quaker Oats were signed. However, in the details of the lawsuit, PepsiCo, Quaker Oats’ parent company, claims those contracts don’t exist.

Given the racial climate of the time, it seems pretty unlikely that either Green or Harrington would have been in a position to bargain for fair compensation. But that may be a moot point to a judge.

“This happened so long ago and continued for so long with nobody doing anything about it,” attorney Don Cox told USA Today. “If a person doesn’t take action within an applicable period of time, their claim goes away.”

As for Quaker Oats, it maintains there’s no problem. “The [Aunt Jemima] image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person,” the company said in a statement.