CHICAGO — A great-grandson of "Aunt Jemima" doesn't want Quaker Oats — or white America, for that matter — to easily erase its racist history by
On Wednesday, Chicago-based Quaker Foods announced it would eliminate the Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix and syrup in response to civil unrest and protests calling for racial equity across America sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died with his neck under the knee of a white Minnesota police officer.
"This is an injustice for me and my family. This is part of my history, sir," Larnell Evans Sr. told me. "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."
The first "Aunt Jemima" debuted at Chicago's World's Fair in 1893. Former enslaved woman Nancy Green, who worked as a cook on the South Side, was hired to wear an apron and headscarf while serving pancakes to folks who came to visit the fairgrounds known as "The White City." Green embodied the Aunt Jemima character until her death in 1923.
Evans says his great-grandmother — the late Anna Short Harrington — took Green's place.
Harrington was born on a South Carolina plantation where her family worked as sharecroppers. In 1927, a white family from New York "bought" Harrington to be their maid. She made a living as cook at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house in Syracuse and worked for wealthy white people, including Gov. Thomas E. Dewey. She was discovered by a Quaker Oats representative while serving up her pancakes, a favorite of local frat boys, at the New York State Fair in 1935.
Quaker Oats used Harrington's likeness on products and advertising, and it sent her around the country to serve flapjacks dressed as "Aunt Jemima." The gig made her a national celebrity.
Quaker Oats also used Harrington's pancake recipe, Evans and a nephew claimed in a 2014 lawsuit seeking $3 billion from Quaker Oats for not paying royalties to Harrington's descendants. The attempt to make Quaker Oats pay restitution in federal court failed.
Evans said the case started with a bad lawyer, and things only got worse. He and his nephew were representing themselves against Quaker Oats' corporate lawyers when a federal judge in Chicago dismissed the case with prejudice, court records show. Evans and his nephew weren't executors of Harrington's estate. They didn't have legal standing to sue in her name, the judge ruled. The appellate court denied an appeal.
"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," he said. "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?"
On Wednesday, news of Aunt Jemima's "retirement" started a trend. Mars Inc., the makers of Uncle Ben's instant rice, announced it would change the global brand's name and mascot logo because "now was the right time to evolve."
Like Evans' great-grandmother, the kindly looking black gentleman on the rice box isn't a logo. It's an image of the late Frank Brown, who was the maitre d' at an exclusive Chicago restaurant frequented by the founder of Uncle Ben's.
The black chef on the boxes of Cream Of Wheat is an image of a real person, too. The late Frank L. White was a chef in Chicago. In 1900, his picture replaced the breakfast cereal's previous mascot — "Rastus," a racial slur for a black man. White died in 1938. He was buried in a grave that was unmarked until 2007. B&G Foods officials announced they are considering removing White's image from the box.
Evans, a 66-year-old Marine Corps veteran living on disability in North Carolina, says his family and black Americans deserve more from corporations such as Quaker Oats than an acknowledgment that, yes, they profited off images of slavery — the likeness of Green and Harrington from syrup bottles — before removing the evidence from grocery store shelves.
"How many white people were raised looking at characters like Aunt Jemima at breakfast every morning? How many white corporations made all them profits, and didn't give us a dime? I think they should have to look at it. They can't just wipe it out while we still suffer," he said.
"After making all that money —and now's the time when black people are saying we want restitution for slavery — they're just going to erase history like it didn't happen? ... They're not going to give us nothing? What gives them the right?"
I think Evans knew the answer: This is America.
Mark Konkol, recipient of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting, wrote and produced the Peabody Award-winning series, "Time: The Kalief Browder Story." He was a producer, writer and narrator for the "Chicagoland" docu-series on CNN, and a consulting producer on the Showtime documentary, "16 Shots.
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