Pancake breakfasts at home just won’t be the same in the future without “Aunt Jemima” smiling at me from the box of Aunt Jemima pancake mix sitting on the kitchen shelf. Quaker Oats announced recently that they were discontinuing the 131-year-old trademark name “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community” by doing away with the Aunt Jemima name and picture of the smiling African American woman on the box.
Let me tell you a little bit about Nancy Green, the woman who is known to the world as Aunt Jemima. She was born a slave in Montgomery County, Kentucky back in 1834.
While in Kentucky she was employed by Charles Walker, an attorney. She moved with the Walker family to Chicago just after the Great Fire in 1872.
Walker heard that a friend was looking for a model for the Aunt Jemima character, and he suggested Green who, by that time, had served the family for many years. She was instantly recognized with the characteristics the guy was looking for . . . charisma, humor, and a fantastic cook.
Green was 56-years old when she was selected as spokesperson for the new ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour and made her public debut in 1893 at the World’s Fair in Chicago. She demonstrated the pancake mix while serving up thousands of pancakes . . . and became an immediate star. She was a wonderful storyteller, her personality was warm and appealing, and her showmanship was exceptional. Her exhibition booth drew so many people that special security personnel were assigned to keep the crowds moving.
Nancy Green was signed to a lifetime contract, traveled on promotional tours all over the country, and was extremely well paid. Her financial freedom and stature as a national spokesperson enabled her to become a philanthropist, a leading advocate against poverty, and a fighter for equal rights.
She maintained her job until a car accident took her life in 1923 at age 89, after becoming one of America’s first black millionaires.
I remember as a kid seeing her smiling face on the box of the pancake mix bearing the Aunt Jemima name.
In making the announcement, Quaker Oats said the company would donate at least five million dollars over the next five years “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.”
It looks like some other popular foods may be changing in the future. Mrs. Butterworth’s syrup, Uncle Ben’s rice, and Cream of Wheat cereal are all looking at possible future name changes or changes in their package designs.
Goodbye, Aunt Jemima. You may be gone from the boxes of the pancake mix but you won’t be gone from my memory of seeing your happy face smiling at me as I ate your pancakes.
Dick Emerson is the former publisher of the DeForest Times-Tribune.