Fact check: Aunt Jemima model Nancy Green didn't create the brand

Miriam Fauzia, USA TODAY

The claim: Nancy Green, the face of Aunt Jemima, initially created the pancake brand and later became one of America's first Black millionaires  

In a move to do away with a problematic past, Quaker Oats parent company PepsiCo announced on June 17 it would retire its Aunt Jemima character. The beaming face of America's beloved pancake mix and maple syrup has long been rooted in a painful and racist history.       

However on social media, many expressed outrage over the perceived erasure of the legacy of the women who have served as the brand's models. A popular claim circulating on Facebook is that Nancy Green, the original Aunt Jemima model, was an inspirational figure.  

"Nancy Green, (aka Aunt Jemima) was born into slavery. She was a magnificent cook. When she was ‘freed’ she rolled her talent into a cooking brand that (General Mills) bought & used her likeness. She died in 1923 as one of America’s first black millionaires,” Patricia Dickson wrote in tweet that has been shared across Facebook.

The user who shared the screenshot on Facebook declined to respond to USA TODAY's request for comment and clarification.

The origin of Aunt Jemima's pancakes   

The initial recipe for the pancake mix was the brainchild of Chris Rutt, a former editorial writer for the now-defunct St. Joseph Gazette. Rutt and business partner Charles Underwood had acquired a flour mill and, by trial-and-error, perfected a recipe for self-rising, premixed pancake flour.

According to M. M. Manring, author of "Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima," despite the novelty of their new product, Rutt and Underwood encountered difficulty branding it. While wandering the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri, Rutt happened upon a performance of "Old Aunt Jemima," a popular minstrel song written by Black musician Billy Kersands in 1875. The song features a mammy, a racial stereotype of the Black female caretaker figure devoted to her white family. This image of supposed Southern hospitality inspired the hopeful entrepreneur.      

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Unfortunately, Manring wrote, Rutt and Underwood were unable to sell their new Aunt Jemima breakfast product. 

"They had no distribution network and little concept of the need to advertise a new product," Manring wrote.

The partners eventually sold their company and the recipe to R.T. Davis, owner of R.T. Davis Milling Co., the largest flour mill in Buchanan County, Missouri.

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Aunt Jemima meets Nancy Green

As a 50-year veteran of the flour industry, Davis was not only able to invest the necessary capital in improving the Aunt Jemima recipe, he also knew how to successfully market.

"R.T. Davis decided to promote Aunt Jemima pancake mix by creating Aunt Jemima — in person. He mixed the mammy and the mass market," Manring wrote.

After merging his company with the Pearl Milling Co. in 1890, Davis sent a casting call for a gregarious, theatrical Black woman who could cook the pancake mix at big demonstrations.

Nancy Green, a 59-year-old servant for a Chicago judge, fit the bill. Born on a slave plantation in Montgomery County, Kentucky, Green had the lively personality and cooking skills Davis sought. She debuted at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.

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Green worked a booth designed to resemble a giant flour barrel, cooking pancakes, singing and regaling guests with stories of her childhood in slavery. She became a sensation and was awarded a medal by world's fair officials. 

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Green's personification of Aunt Jemima and the character's mythology built by advertising executives, earned Davis, and later Quaker Oats, a great deal of profit. However, there is no evidence to suggest Green ever saw any of that revenue, said Patricia A. Turner, professor of African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a comment to the Associated Press.

An inspirational figure

Although she played a character, Green was a notable woman in her own right. She served as one of the founding members of Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest active Black Baptist church in Chicago, was a minister and a philanthropist. She enjoyed a kind of social and economic mobility unavailable to Black women of her time, according to reporting by public radio station WBEZ Chicago earlier this month.

"That is absolutely the irony, that she is playing a role: a derogatory type and caricature of Black women," said Romi Crawford, who teaches African American visual imagery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in an interview with WBEZ Chicago. "In actuality, this is a Black woman who was moving around the country and, in a way, the world. ... Her actual mobility in so many ways defied the stasis of the problematic caricature-type."

Green died at age 89 after being struck by a swerving vehicle in 1923 in Chicago, according to her obituary in the Chicago Defender.     

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Our ruling: False

We rate the claim that Nancy Green, the first model for the Aunt Jemima pancake brand, was the initial creator and went on to became one of America's first Black millionaires as FALSE because it is not supported by our research. Green was chosen in a casting call to represent Aunt Jemima, and profits went to the brand's owners, R.T. Davis then Quaker Oats.

Our fact-check sources:

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Aunt Jemima model didn't create brand, wasn't millionaire