HISTORY: Beyond the Brand, the Legacy of Aunt Jemima in America

Now that our country is an uproar and civil unrest is wreaking havoc on our cities, communities and businesses; long standing companies with well known branding are diving headlong into destroying their valuable legacies.

Often a company has a history that is important to the founder and their customers. Removing the logo removes a piece of the soul that makes the company notable and the product worth purchasing, promoting and using.

 

 

Aunt Jemima is not the only brand reconsidering their icons, as Uncle Ben’s Rice and Cream of Wheat also have black people representing their products and have done so for years. Attacking these long standing brands and their history of honoring people of color isn’t productive; it’s reductive in the worst sense, bringing society down to just a few symbols, rather than the true, full stories, these represent.

The first Aunt Jemina was Nancy Green who was born into slavery November 17, 1834 near Mount Sterling in Montgomery County, Kentucky. She was hired in 1890 by the R.T. Davis Milling Company in St. Joseph, MO to represent “Aunt Jemima.”

Nancy Green was introduced in 1893 as “Aunt Jemima” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Her job was to operate a pancake-cooking display. Green had an amiable personality and was a talented cook for the Walker family. The Walker children grew up to become Chicago Court Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker. They helped establish a successful showing of the product at the Expo.

The “Aunt Jemima” icon is an advertising character that was named after a song from a minstrel show, despite the fact that Green was technically hired to represent the product. The Davis Milling Company was renamed “Aunt Jemima Mills Company” in 1914.

The next woman who stepped into the role of “Aunt Jemima” is Anna Short Harrington who was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina in 1897. She began her career as Aunt Jemima in 1935. Her picture with the bandana was used on Quaker Oats products.

Harrington continued in the role for 14 years, allowing her to buy a big house and rent the rooms out.

These are success stories, not history to flee from in shame.

Many more companies use images of their loved ones — black women and men — as part of their branding. These should be celebrated, rather than the next inline on the chopping block.

One company to consider that has the face of a loved one as part of the brand is Marjorie’s Beef Jerky. This is the only black-woman owned beef jerky company in the U.S.

Michelle Timberlake is the founder of the company and runs it now with her father. She encourages people to try the jerky as it is made with premium meat, high in quality and protein with no MSG or preservatives outside of the soy sauce. It is also 150 calories per bag.

The woman pictured on every bag of Marjorie’s Beef Jerky is the late Marjorie Leona Dawson, Timberlake’s mother. Marjorie was a hero and mentor to Timberlake and is the person who gave Timberlake the courage to start her own brand of beef jerky.

Another company that also claims their legacy with the face of a loved one is, Mutt’s Sauce with the recipe being handed down to the founder, an Air Force Veteran. The recipe was handed down to her by her Grandfather, Charlie “Mutt” Ferrell, Jr. who is also an Air Force Veteran.

“Mutt’s Sauce” bears the image of Ferrell and is the face of the brand on the delicious sauce.

Nancy Green’s grandson, Larnell Evans Sr., 66-year-old U.S. Marine Veteran living on disability, shared his outrage in an interview with Patch, “This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir. 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.”

Larnell continued, “She worked for that Quaker Oats for 20 years. She traveled all the way around the United States and Canada making pancakes as Aunt Jemima for them. This woman served all those people, and it was after slavery. She worked as Aunt Jemima. That was her job. … How do you think I feel as a black man sitting here telling you about my family history they’re trying to erase?”

Rather than erasing their historical contributions, highlighting the success of the ladies that portrayed Aunt Jemima in a post slavery era would do more to honor their legacy.

New companies are born every day in our country based on family history. Legacies are meant to be created and shared. We need to stop destroying our history.

What we need to do is encourage the entrepreneurial spirit and allow people to celebrate their loved ones and share their legacy, no matter what color God happened to paint us.

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