Did you know that Aunt Jemima, the famous face of a slew of food products from pancakes to frozen dinners, was modeled on a real person? Anna Short Harrington was selected as the face of “Aunt Jemima” in 1935, and now, her family is demanding their share of the royalties from the exploitation of their ancestor’s image: $2 billion. They’re naming Quaker Oats, PepsiCo, Hillshire Brands and Pinnacle Foods in a lawsuit that probably won’t pan out — but does make an important statement about the history of the exploitation of Black women, and the Black community’s attempt to reclaim its legacies.
The origins of Aunt Jemima lie in the 1890s, when the racist caricature first appeared on pancake mix and a range of other products. She likely has her origins in minstrel shows. When Quaker looked for a Black woman to inhabit the role in the 1930s, they found Harrington. By 1937, they had trademarked her image. Her own pancake recipe was adapted for sale, and her iconic face was a fixture on store shelves long after her death in 1955, when Quaker continued using it and licensing it to other companies, making a fortune. In addition to being used as the face of Aunt Jemima, Harrington was also used for her recipes, for which she received no compensation, despite the fact that they brought in substantial revenues for Quaker.
This isn’t the only story of a Black woman who was exploited for commercial purposes — Henrietta Lacks is another classic and well-known example. The Black woman’s cancer cells continue to be used in vital research all around the world, but until recently, her family had no idea their ancestor’s tissue had been collected and distributed without her knowledge; and, of course, none of them received compensation for Henrietta’s scientific legacy.
That makes this case, among others like it, especially complex, because it’s not just about royalties or the question of repayment rights. It’s also about the racial history of using people without their consent, or without their full understanding of the implications of their consent, as seen in the history of the early years of the Pill, or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
In this case, her heirs are arguing that when Quaker adopted Harrington as the face of its products, it did so with the knowing intent to defraud her and her heirs of future revenue by claiming that she wasn’t an employee of the company. Yet, Harrrington’s death certificate lists Quaker as her employer — and in addition to appearing on boxes, she did cooking demonstrations and public appearances, which belies the claim that Quaker wasn’t treating her as a regular employee. Quaker claims she surrendered her copyright, thus allowing them to do as they pleased, while her family members beg to differ.
Thus far, the named companies are mostly remaining mum about the issue, as is common for major corporations facing lawsuits. They may believe that the case against them is specious, or they may attempt to settle out of court if the matter gets too big to ignore. Meanwhile, if the case reaches beyond Black media — which it seems poised to do, given that it’s being picked up by outlets like CNN — it could spark a larger conversation about the legacies of people we’ve used in advertising, medicine and more without acknowledgment.
Photo credit: Jim Capaldi.