Reparations for Aunt Jemima
You may not know her name, but whoever you are, you probably know her face if you have been living in America over the past 50 years. You may have a box with her smiling face in your kitchen cabinet right now. Quaker Oats has used the image of Anna Short Harrington as the face and character of Aunt Jemima since 1935. Her grandchildren have filed a class action lawsuit for $2 billion against Quaker Oats.
Her great grandsons have initiated a suit in federal court seeking revenue from the conglomerate that is now owned by PepsiCo. The late Mr. D. W. Hunter and Larnell Evans activated the Aunt Jemima brand when they tasted her pancakes at the New York State Fair in 1935. The suit says the two men had no intentions of paying royalties to her estate after her death in 1935 and that the company ignored her status as an employee. One of the more interesting things about this case is that all of the original parties are deceased and in those days, it was most unusual for a Negro to have a signed contract for their image. But her image was trademarked in 1937.
Not only did the company use Anna Short Harrington’s image but they also profited from her personal recipes – 64 original formulas and 22 menus. Indeed she was exploited. Her death certificate says that Quaker Oats employed her.
Quaker Oats has suggested that the “image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth hospitality and comfort, and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person.” Let’s face it Aunt Jemima is yesteryear’s “Mammy.” The company says there were no contacts. One of the more interesting facts in this case will be whether or not Aunt Jemima was a real person or not?
In 1989 the Aunt Jemima image changed because of black complaints that the original image was insulting and stereotypical. Aunt Jemima got an image make over. The bandana was removed, (her hair was curled) she was lightened (perhaps she used a bleach for her skin) and just like a lady she put on pearls and so she appears to have lost weight (perhaps she had stomach surgery). The suit also suggests that the modern updated version of Aunt Jemima was Mrs. Harrington’s youngest daughter, Olivia Hunter.
It will be interesting to follow this suit. It will be noteworthy to see if the original contract appears, if there ever was one. I wonder how much Quaker Oats owes the Harrington family not only for the image but also for the recipes? How much money did Ms. Jemima really make for this giant company based on her home cooking? One thing you don’t have to guess about is the fact that this is a case of reparations, theft and stolen identity.
And now then what about Uncle Ben?