When I was a kid there was always a bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup in the fridge and a box of the pancake mix in the cupboard. On pretty much every childhood birthday I can remember, I would request chocolate chip pancakes and then proceed to drench them in Aunt Jemima syrup. It's making me hungry thinking about it right now. On the other hand, even as a 10 year old, I always thought there was something weird about the brand's name and spokeswoman. Without knowing anything about the corporate history, something just felt off and slightly racist. Fast forward to the present, when everything is so politically correct, how is it still ok to have a brand that is pretty much blatantly racist? If the "Washington Redskins" team name is so controversial, why aren't more people up in arms about Aunt Jemima?
Well, it turns out some people are very angry at the brand. Angry enough to sue parent corporations Quaker Oats and PepsiCo, but not for the reasons you might think. Earlier this week, a group of people filed that claims their great-grandmother was the real-life model for the "Aunt Jemima" character. And if you think this is some silly little attempt to grab headlines and maybe score a small payout, you are wrong. The relatives have a fairly solid case and they are suing for no less than $2 billion in unpaid royalties.
Aunt Jemima History:
The concept of "Aunt Jemima" dates back nearly 150 years, decades before the syrup or pancake mix existed. Back in the late 19th century, Aunt Jemima was a popular minstrel show character. For those of you who do not know, a minstrel show was a form of entertainment popular after the civil war where white actors would dress up in black face to act out skits that today we would consider horrendously racist. In 1875 a song from one such minstrel show titled "Old Aunt Jemima" was recorded by an African American songwriter named Billy Kersands. When the song was performed during shows, Aunt Jemima would be portrayed by a white man in black face who act out stereotypes of a female former slave who is now a cook.
In 1889, two actors convinced the Peal Milling Company to use their version of Aunt Jemima as a pancake mix spokeswoman. This first iteration was a failure and soon the Pearl Milling Company was sold to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Company in St. Joseph, Missouri. The R.T. Davis Milling Company hired a real-life former slave named Nancy Green to act as the spokeswoman for the newly launched Aunt Jemima pancake mix. In 1913, the R.T. Davis Milling Company changed its name officially to "Aunt Jemima Mills".
Over the next 33 years, from 1890 until her death in 1923, Nancy Green worked as "Aunt Jemima". Nancy would conduct pancake seminars at fairs and travel to towns across America to spread the word about the pancake mix.
In 1926, Quaker Oats acquired the Aunt Jemima Mills company. No real life person was used as an Aunt Jemima for the next decade. A woman named Anna Robinson played the character for Quaker Oats from 1933 to 1935 until she was replaced by a woman named Anna Short Harrington.
Anna Short Harrington:
Anna Short Harrington was discovered by Quaker Oats executives at a cooking fair where she had won praise for her own homemade pancake mix. She was exactly what they were looking for in a spokeswoman. Anna was hired on the spot as the company's new full time real-life Aunt Jemima and within months an ad featuring Anna appeared in the magazine Woman's Home Companion. The company also started using her recipe for mass production of their mix.
In 1937, Quaker Oats filed for a trademark for the brand. This is important: In their trademark application, they included a photo of Anna Short Harrington dressed up as Aunt Jemima. In the lawsuit that was recently filed, Harrington's descendants claim the company dissuaded their great-grandmother from seeking legal help to protect her rights in the trademark registration.
Jemima Gets A Reboot:
The image of Anna Harrington's Aunt Jemima went largely unchanged for more than 50 years. In 1989, Quaker Oats decided it was time to update Jemima's image. The face of Aunt Jemima that most of us are familiar with today, is actually Harrington's youngest daughter Olivia Hunter. This likeness is what you see at the super market right now on all Aunt Jemima-related products.
Enter a man named D.W. Hunter, Anna Short Harrington's great-grandson. In the lawsuit that was filed earlier this week, Hunter alleges that Quaker Oats has illegally used his great-grandmother's image and recipes for decades without ever paying a dime in royalties that should have been standard. Furthermore, he claims the company has gone out of its way to deny that his great-grandmother ever even worked at the company. Quaker Oats reportedly told Hunter that there were no employment records for Harrington or any proof that she was used as the basis for Aunt Jemima.
There's just one problem with that argument. Actually two problems. The first problem is the fact that when Quaker Oats filed for the trademark back in 1937, they reportedly included a photo of Anna Short Harrington dressed as Aunt Jemima. Woops. The second problem is the fact that the company just happened to hire Harrington's daughter to be the model for the current Jemima. That would be a pretty crazy coincidence considering the fact that Harrington supposedly never worked for the company.
In his lawsuit, D.W. Hunter's legal teams have cited the standard royalty and residual policies that have been used in Screen Actors Guild (SAG) agreements for decades. Based on these industry standards, plus penalties and late fees, he is seeking $2 billion in damages from Quaker Oats and parent company PepsiCo. Lawyers on the other side have, not surprisingly, denies that this lawsuit has any merit.
Will this lawsuit be successful? At first glance it sounds totally unrealistic, but when you consider some of the above facts… who knows?! What do you think? Do Anna Short Harrington's descendants deserve $2 billion? Let's say that number is purposely outrageous because they are hoping to settle on something smaller but still significant. Do you think they deserve $500 million? $100 million? Nothing? Let us know what you think in the comment section below…