Nancy Green, the Chicago Woman Behind ‘Aunt Jemima’

nancy green, aunt jemima green, aunt jemima nancy green

Wikimedia Commons The images used based on Nancy Green's likeness.

News that Quaker Oats is retiring the image of ‘Aunt Jemima’ on its pancake products has renewed interest in the woman who was originally chosen to advertise the brand, Nancy Green.

Green toured the country representing the company and using her cooking skills to make the pancake and syrup mix popular. However, controversy has arisen about her legacy and whether she was actually a millionaire.

Who Was Nancy Green?

Green was born into slavery, according to the African American Registry, in 1834 in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

WBEZ Chicago radio reported that Bronzeville Historical Society President Sherry Williams used information from an old Chicago Defender obituary to learn that Green was “a philanthropist and ministry leader” and “one of the founding members of Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest active Black Baptist church in Chicago.”

According to author Kathy Warnes, Nancy Green helped raise funds for the Boys Club of Rockford, Illinois and “raised over three million dollars for charities without any personal return for her or her company.”

Green held her job representing ‘Aunt Jemima’ until she was hit by a car and killed in 1923 while walking down 46th Street, the Sunday Morning Star reported. Two years later, Quaker Oats purchased the company. According to NPR, Green had lost her children and husband at the time of her death and was living with a great-nephew by the name of Luroy Hayes and his wife.

Nancy Green Was the Face of ‘Aunt Jemima’

Aunt Jemima’s website reported that Nancy Green was responsible for bringing R.T. Davis’ vision of Aunt Jemima to life in 1890 and described Green as a “storyteller, cook and missionary” worker.

According to the African American Registry, the two founders — newspaperman Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood — wanted an image for their product and Rutt found his at a vaudeville minstrel show, where a blackface performer sung a tune called “Aunt Jemima.” However, they couldn’t make money and sold their company to R.T. Davis. Davis met Nancy Green in Chicago when she was working as a cook for Judge Charles Walker, and according to Marilyn Kern-Foxworth’s Book “Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” he recommended her to Davis.

Impressed, Davis brought her along to Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the Lousiville Courier-Journal reported and author Kathy Warnes described the scene of her this way:

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a smiling African American woman stood in front of the world’s largest flour barrel-making pancakes in front of a sign identifying her as “Aunt Jemima.” The flour barrel behind her measured 12 feet across at the ends, 24 feet long and 16 feet in diameter. Inside the barrel displays advertised the virtues of pancakes and customers happily ate pancakes, testifying to their virtues.

According to the African American Registry, Green was a hit at the fairs, and was awarded a medal and certificate as the “Pancake Queen.” She signed a lifetime contract to do tours nationally.

Associated Press Disputes Claim Green Was A Millionaire

At a Trump rally in Arizona, a student described Nancy Green’s portrayal as Aunt Jemima as “the picture of the American Dream” during a speech decrying “cancel culture,” Newsweek reported. A tweet had also been circulating claiming that Green was made a millionaire by her contract with Quaker Oats.

However, the Associated Press rated this claim as false:

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.

According to what UCLA African American studies Professor Patricia A. Turner told the AP, “there is no evidence that Nancy Green shared in any of the profits from the company that sold the pancake mix.”

NPR reported that Sherry Williams was trying to find a headstone to put on Green’s grave, which was unmarked. Williams told NPR that when she asked Quaker Oats executives if they would be willing to pitch in to pay for such a headstone, “Their corporate response was that Nancy Green and Aunt Jemima aren’t the same — that Aunt Jemima is a fictitious character.”

Quaker Oats Has Said It Is Retiring the ‘Aunt Jemima’ Image

Many pushed back on the image, even after other Black women became the spokeswomen for the company and the image was “updated” with straightened hair and pearl earrings, because it still represented a portrayal of Black women as “mammy” figures.

Quaker Oats, a company that has been owned by PepsiCo since 2001, announced June 17 that it was retiring the “Aunt Jemima” character because they acknowledged that it represented a “racial stereotype” according to Quaker Foods North America spokeswoman Kristin Kroepfl.

That stereotype is the “mammy” figure, which Merriam-Wesbter defined as “a black woman serving as a nurse to white children especially formerly in the southern U.S.” and many find the term offensive.

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