While some lauded Quaker Oats’ move to rebrand its line of Aunt Jemima products, famous for its pancake mixes and maple syrup, in 2020, descendants of the real woman behind the face of the brand called it an “injustice” that served only to erase Black history.
On June 17, 2020, Quaker Oats announced it would change the name and imagery of its Aunt Jemima breakfast products after saying it recognized that “Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” according to NBC News. A representative added:
“As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers’ expectations.”
Aunt Jemima was launched in 1888 by the Pearl Milling Company after it developed what it described as the first “ready-mix” cooking product in the form of a pancake mix. The brand’s imagery of Aunt Jemima was predicated on the “mammy” stereotype of the South. Due to its connotations to the Jim Crow era, the company sought to “update” and be “appropriate and respectful” of the times.
CNN reported in February 2021 that the name would be changed to Pearl Milling Company and that the imagery, “long criticized as a racist caricature of a Black woman stemming from slavery,” would be discontinued.
Not only was the move praised by some parties, but it also prompted other companies to follow suit. Uncle Ben’s, a rice product that carries similar imagery on its packaging, announced it, too, would undergo a transformation and rebranded to Ben’s Original while Mrs. Butterworth’s changed its physical packaging.
However, some have decried the changes as antithetical to supporting the Black community and only amounted to the erasure of a terrible but true history.
Aunt Jemima, undated photograph, (Bettmann via Getty Images)
Larnell Evans Sr, the great-grandson of one of the women who had embodied Aunt Jemima, told Patch a day after Quaker Oats’ announcement in 2020 that the revamp was a disservice to his forebears’ memory and to the Black community.
“This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history. The racism they talk about, using images from slavery, that comes from the other side — white people. This company profits off images of our slavery. And their answer is to erase my great-grandmother’s history. A black female. … It hurts,” he said.
“How many white people were raised looking at characters like Aunt Jemima at breakfast every morning? How many white corporations made all them profits, and didn’t give us a dime? I think they should have to look at it. They can’t just wipe it out while we still suffer,” he continued.
Evans argued that “after making all that money… they’re just going to erase history like it didn’t happen? … They’re not going to give us nothing? What gives them the right?”
The first Aunt Jemima was portrayed by Nancy Green, a cook who had been born into slavery. She remained its mascot until her passing in 1923. Anna Short Harrington, Evans’ great-grandmother, and Lillian Richard, also took on the role of Aunt Jemima.
A representative of the Richard family told KLTV they also opposed the change, and said, “I wish we would take a breath and not just get rid of everything. because good or bad, it is our history. Removing that wipes away a part of me. A part of each of us.”