Aunt Jemima was a brand well known to internet users as a target of online rumors. We’ve checked a number of them — from a photograph that claimed to show Aunt Jemima chained to a table to the claim that Nancy Green died a millionaire for portraying the character.
But the Aunt Jemima character was controversial, and one that the brand's owner, Quaker Oats (a division of PepsiCo Inc.), said was “based on a racial stereotype.” As The Associated Press reported in 2021, the “smiling Aunt Jemima logo was inspired by the 19th century ‘mammy’ minstrel character, a Black woman content to serve her white masters."
The company once again made its way into headlines on April 25, 2022, when Pearl Milling Company announced a $100,000 grant to No More Empty Pots, an organization based in Omaha, Nebraska that provides food security to urban and rural residents. Around that time, a familiar internet trope also recirculated on social media.
After the pancake company rebranded to Pearl Milling Company in February 2021, following the Black Lives Matter protests of the previous year, some internet users argued that the new name “erased” a “great woman” from history. That argument resurfaced in April 2022 in a viral piece of copy-and-paste content (known colloquially as copypasta):
In its entirety, the copypasta read:
A great woman erased from history by idiots.
The branding of the syrup was a tribute to this woman’s gifts and talents. Now future generations will not even know this beautiful woman existed. What a shame. The world knew her as “Aunt Jemima”, but her given name was Nancy Green and she was a true American success story. She was born a slave in 1834 Montgomery County, KY. and became a wealthy superstar in the advertising world, as its first living trademark. Green was 56-yrs old when she was selected as spokesperson for a new ready-mixed, self-rising pancake flour and made her debut in 1893 at a fair and exposition in Chicago. She demonstrated the pancake mix and served thousands of pancakes, and became an immediate star. She was a good 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 leading advocate against poverty and in favor of equal rights for all Americans. She maintained her job until her death in 1923, at age 89. This was a remarkable woman, and sadly she has been ERASED by politics. I wanted you to know and remind you in this cancel culture time period.
At the time the rebranding was first announced, Pearl Milling Company noted that the name had been part of the company history for over 130 years.
“Pearl Milling Company was a small mill in the bustling town of St. Joseph, Missouri,” wrote the company on its website. They produced flour, cornmeal, and, beginning in 1889, the famous self-rising pancake mix that would go on to be known as Aunt Jemima.
According to the African American Registry (AAREG), a nonprofit online database of African American heritage around the world, Nancy Green was a Black storyteller and one of the first corporate Black models in the United States. Born in 1834 as a slave in Kentucky, Green was hired in 1890 by the R.T. Davis Milling Company to play a “Mammy archetype to promote their new product.” She was introduced three years later as Aunt Jemima at the World's Columbian Exposition held in Chicago “in the guise of a plantation slave, where it was her job to operate a pancake-cooking display.” As AAREG notes, Green was reportedly offered a lifetime contract to “adopt the Aunt Jemima moniker and promote the pancake mix" (though this may have been part of the brand's lore rather than an actual account.)
The branding of Aunt Jemima syrup was not “a tribute to this woman’s gifts and talents” as the Facebook post claims, but rather the use of her portrayal of a racially stereotyped caricature for marketing purposes:
The term "Aunt" in this context was a southern form of address used with older enslaved peoples. They were denied the use of courtesy titles. A character named "Aunt Jemima" appeared on the stage in Washington, D.C., as early as 1864. Rutt's inspiration for Aunt Jemima was the American-style minstrelsy/vaudeville song "Old Aunt Jemima", written in 1875. Rutt reportedly saw a minstrel show featuring the "Old Aunt Jemima" song in the fall of 1889, presented by blackface performers, the actor playing Aunt Jemima wore an apron and kerchief, and he appropriated this Aunt Jemima character to market the Pearl Milling Company pancake mix.
In the decades that followed Green’s death, a number of other women went on to portray the Aunt Jemima caricature, including Anna Robinson and Lou Blanchard (below).