BY ALICESTYNE TURLEY
Nancy Green CARREY PARRISH
Utilizing one of the nation’s most beloved racial stereotypes, in 1890 R. T. Davis, the president of Davis Milling Company, launched the nation’s first successful product marketing campaign which has lasted over 130 years. Last week’s decision by Quaker Oats (PepsiCo) to officially remove the image and name “Aunt Jemima” from its oldest and most successful product line, sparked a twenty-first century controversy, bearing witness to the art and power of storytelling.
To understand why the “Aunt Jemima” image is racist, one would have to first understand American history, which as a nation we have worked hard to sanitize. To all my friends who remain confused, I would like to first share that “Aunt Jemima” was a minstrel show character developed during the mid-1850s by a white male in blackface (yes, that same blackface which has embarrassed so many of our modern politicians) dressed as a black woman, designed to entertain white audiences. An extremely popular art form, white minstrelsy performed in blackface became the major way by which white audiences were introduced to a perceived notion of “black” life and culture. The “Aunt Jemima” minstrel character was meant to reflect the archetypical southern “Mammy” every white American household needed and desired and as such, has remained one of the most enduring 19th century caricatures embraced by modern society as an authentic black representation.
Never achieving the status of “Mother,” (a status reserved for white women) “Mammy” or the nationally elevated “Aunt Jemima,” was at best a “mother’s helper.” Trusted enough to remain in the big house, it was “Mammy’s” responsibility to prepare the family’s food and clothing, to care for the family’s children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and friends, and to serve as a trusted confidant responsible for the emotional and physical support and well-being of her white family. Always happy, never complaining, loyal and dutiful to the end, “Mammy” worked for no pay or time-off. She survived only on the love and support of her white family.
In 1889, utilizing this well-known, comforting black image, Charles Rutt and Chris Underwood, founders of Pearl Milling Company carefully crafted the “Aunt Jemima” script, renaming their company the Aunt Jemima Manufacturing Company. Following several failed attempts to commercially market their ready-made pancake mix, Rutt and Underwood sold the script, the image, their milling company, and their self-rising formula to the R. T. Davis Milling Company. Davis then advertised for and hired a black woman to embody the purposefully designed role of America’s “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemima.”
In 1890, a 56-year-old widowed, black woman and former housekeeper living at 4543 Prairie Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, named Nancy Green, who bore no physical or cultural resemblance to the carefully created, artfully crafted, universally familiar image of “Aunt Jemima,” was hired to fulfill the sales position. With Nancy Green serving as their pitchwoman, the Davis Milling Company re-introduced the pancake mix in St. Joseph, Missouri, that same year, and as is said, the rest is history.
Nancy Green, aka “Aunt Jemima,” was born enslaved March 4, 1834 in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky. Sometime during her late teens, early twenties Nancy obtained her freedom and began work in Covington as a nanny and housekeeper to Charles Morehead Walker and his wife Amanda who were former members of Montgomery County’s Somerset Christian Church. The Walker family relocated from Covington to Chicago, circa 1856-59, taking a young Nancy Green with them. Nancy remained a nurse and personal attendant to the Walker’s two young sons into their adulthood, where they went on to become Chicago Circuit Court Judge Charles M. Walker, Jr. and Dr. Samuel J. Walker, a wealthy Northside Chicago physician, until her employment with the Davis Milling Company. Green’s former wards actively promoted Green for the role of “Aunt Jemima,” claiming the famed pancake recipe marketed by Davis, was in fact Nancy Green’s own pancake recipe which Davis adapted to a ready-mix.
As a Chicago citizen, Nancy Green translated her “Aunt Jemima” fame into becoming a founding member of Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church, one of Chicago’s largest black congregations, serving as a church missionary who advocated for antipoverty programs and black equal rights. Green’s fame as America’s “Aunt Jemima” could not protect her in life, however. On September 23, 1923 she was struck down on the sidewalk at age 89, by a car driven by Chicago drugstore owner Dr. H. S. Seymour, on 46th Street. Green died at the scene. At the age of 89, Green was still working as the spokeswoman for Quaker Oats “Aunt Jemima” production line. Yet, upon her death, she was buried in a remote section of Chicago’s black owned Oakwood Cemetery, marked only by a buried headstone bearing the numbers “291.” The woman Nancy Green, forgotten by history, while the image of America’s “Mammy in a Box,” “Aunt Jemima,” remains.
Alicestyne Turley is the coordinator of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, TN, a Kentucky Humanities Council Scholar, a commissioner of the Kentmucky African American Heritage Commission and a board member of the Kentucky African American Heritage Center.