When I was a child, my mother always made pancakes with Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and I still do today. Nothing else tastes quite the same. My grandmother even had a cast iron doorstop of the Aunt Jemima character. These doorstops date to the 1930’s, but I have no idea where or when Grammy got it. In the 1960’s I was a young child, but I still remember Grammy talking about her Aunt Jemima statue, giving me the impression the company had recalled the item due to its racist representation. It left me with the sense that while the statue was something my grandmother loved, it was something she shouldn’t have. It wasn’t too many years later that I understood the outcry over the mammy image. The doorstop, though, continued to be special to our family as a piece my grandmother loved. When she passed away, it went to my brother. In 2018, the doorstop was destroyed along with my brother’s home by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.
I didn’t learn until I was an adult that Aunt Jemima was a real person. Nancy Hays Green was born in 1834, a slave on a farm outside Montgomery, Kentucky, where local farmers named Green raised tobacco, hay, cattle, and hogs. By the end of the Civil War, Nancy had lost her husband, George Green, and their several children. Her master, Judge Charles Walker, moved his family to Chicago in the early 1870’s, taking their slave, Nancy, with them.
In 1889, invention of a ready-made, self-rising pancake flour would change Nancy Green’s life. The two white men who created it, Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood, got the idea for the brand name after attending a vaudeville show. One of the performers sang a song called “Aunt Jemima” in blackface, wearing an apron and head bandana. It apparently seemed a good idea at the time, even though the image was clearly a racist representation of submissiveness and servitude.
R.T. Davis Milling Company bought the company in 1890 and set out to find someone to be a living trademark for the company. They hired Nancy Green on the recommendation of her master, Judge Walker, and she became a live trademark pitching one of the first labor-saving products of the 20th century. Her first public appearance was the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Dressed as a plantation slave in her familiar apron and bandana, she cooked thousands of pancakes next to a twenty-four foot high flour barrel. She sang songs and told romanticized stories about the Old South, a happy place for blacks and whites alike. It was definitely a different time. Nancy was a good storyteller with excellent showmanship. Her charisma drew so many people to the exhibition booth that extra security was needed to keep the crowds moving.
The World’s Columbian Exposition gave educated progressive black women Hallie Quinn Brown, Anna Julia Cooper, and Fannie Barrier Williams an opportunity to speak out about the exploitation of African American women by white men. They pointed out that Aunt Jemima represented the prevalent racist idea that African Americans were natural servants. But it wasn’t until 2020, after the killing of George Floyd, that Quaker Oats, who bought the Davis Milling Company in 1925, announced they would retire the Aunt Jemima logo and name.
For decades after the Exposition, the Davis Milling Company created legends and backstory for their character. In 1895, the company created a booklet, “Life of Aunt Jemima: The Most Famous Colored Woman in the World,” which was a masterful piece of fiction. It described Aunt Jemima “as a little pickaninny (who) chased the butterflies in the field, and found a new happiness in the dawn of each coming day.” It extolled her as a good cook who analyzed the properties of cereal, one whose recipes have never been improved. That same year, The Philadelphia Times reported that Aunt Jemima was petted and cosseted by her white mistress and raised in a loving home. They created a tale about how Aunt Jemima stayed loyal to her mistress after the Civil War, even helping free her master, imprisoned by the Union.
Nancy Green was purportedly offered a lifetime contract, traveled all over the country on promotional tours. She was paid well. Despite that, she refused to go to the 1900 Paris exhibition. She was afraid to leave her country and travel by sea. She was replaced by Agnes Moodey, who was then reported as the original Aunt Jemima. Nancy Green was listed on the 1910 census as a residential housekeeper. In Chicago, she was active in Olivet Baptist Church, which became the largest African American church in the country. Nancy Green spoke out against poverty and in favor of equal rights for people in Chicago. She lived in almost complete anonymity with nieces and nephews until her death in 1923.
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