Chicago’s connection to the real ‘Aunt Jemima’ and how some are working to preserve her legacy

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In June, Quaker Oats announced it was retiring its 130-year old “Aunt Jemima” brand because of its history based on a racial stereotype.

There’s a little-known story about this well-known brand, with a Chicago connection. And there’s an effort to preserve the legacy of the real woman behind the controversial character and why some have mixed feelings about the brand being retired.

Stylish, God-fearing, an activist with a flair for food, Nancy Green was all that and more. She was the first “Aunt Jemima.”

Sherry Williams is the founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society. She first learned of Green through a family tradition called “Grave Decoration Day,” their version of Memorial Day.

“My parents would always tell me about the incredible lives of people whom they had celebrated,” William said.

And as she continued the tradition with her children, she said Green was often a topic.

Green was born into slavery in 1834 in Kentucky. By 1880, she had moved to Chicago and at one point lived on 45th Street and Indiana Avenue, in the Bronzeville neighborhood.  She was one of the founding members and organizers of Olivet Baptist Church when it moved to 31st Street. 

And she worked as a nurse and caretaker for a wealthy family where she had a reputation of being an excellent cook. Her obituary in the Chicago Defender proudly proclaimed because she could make “flapjacks to the queen’s taste,” she was hired to by a milling company to travel the country to put on cooking demonstrations for its new, readymade pancake mix. The mix was named “Aunt Jemima,” based on a racial stereotype from a late 1800’s minstrel show that featured a man in blackface. 

“Most newspaper accounts tell us that Nancy Green is whom created the original recipe that was used ultimately by the Quaker Oats company,” Williams said.

Green dressed up as a “mammie” in a head scarf to portray a living version of Aunt Jemima at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She reportedly attracted huge crowds with her sparkling personality and flare for storytelling.  She ended up selling 50,000 boxes. 

Green continued as the brand’s ambassador, a national celebrity of sorts for the next 20 years with posters announcing “I’s in town honey.”

“Every time you saw her an advertisement, it was the characterization of what the marketers for the company believes her imagery should look like,” Williams said. “But it does not fit her at all if you look at her picture.”

When she wasn’t peddling pancakes, Green used her celebrity status to speak out against poverty and advocate for equal rights.

Marcus Hayes is one of Green’s last known living relatives.  He learned details about his great, great, great aunt when Williams tracked him and his brothers down while doing her research.

“I think we need to understand the real truth behind the moment,” he said. “That it is not just a character. It is an actual person who overcame oppression, who use what she had to become who she was. That she used her recipe, while still being enslaved and nursing a family, and became someone that the world would eventually know.”

Green died in 1923 at the age of 89 when she was hit by a car while crossing 46th Street. She was buried in a remote corner of Oak Woods Cemetery in an unmarked, pauper’s grave.

Three years later Quaker Oats bought the Aunt Jemima brand and hired several new spokesmodels over the years, leaving Green’s legacy to fade.

Now as the company tries to reckon with Aunt Jemima’s racist past, Hayes said he has mixed feelings about the company’s plans to retire the brand.

“I don’t want her legacy to be erased,” he said.

“I think absolutely they should retain the image that’s there,” William said. “I believe it’s a teachable moment to describe, clearly, why this imagery was important to the brand. And it was important to the brand because this black woman is what sold the product.”

In 2015, Williams spearheaded a campaign to highlight Green’s life and legacy. She raised more than $7,000 dollars to place a headstone at her grave.

“I’m excited. The marker looks amazing,” Hayes said. “I think she would really, really be proud.”

In a city cemetery that holds the remains of many prominent Black Chicagoans, like journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, Olympic hero Jesse Owens and Chicago’s first Black mayor Harold Washington now sits the headstone of one more: Nancy Green, the original Aunt Jemima.

There will be a ceremony Saturday at Oak Woods Cemetery to dedicate the grave marker and celebrate Green’s life. You can watch it by registering via Zoom at this link.
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