While strolling through New Orleans’ French Quarter during Mardi Gras, it was apparent that the Southern state with delicious eats and hospitable natives still has a penchant for antebellum relics. Miniature statues of mammies, sambos and other caricatures of Black women and men lined the shelves of multiple French Quarter stores, as if they were a link between the integrated current and the segregated past. I issued a customary snort of disgust every time I encountered another warped image that originated in slavery, but I also wondered if “Aunt Jemima’s” heirs received a portion of the profits from these salt-and-pepper shakers, oven mitts and other knick-knacks that proudly bare her image.
That question was answered last week when D.W. Hunter, the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, whose image appears on Aunt Jemima products, filed a $2 billion class action lawsuit against PepsiCo, The Quaker Oats Company, Pinnacle Food Group and The Hillshire Brand Company. Hunter alleges that his great-grandmother’s image was illegally obtained while she was a Quaker Oats employee, and the brand has refused to pay an “equitable fair share of royalties” for more than 60 years.
The claims come on the heels of the defendants allegedly receiving a certified death certificate for Harrington that listed Quaker Oats as her employer. Hunter further alleges that the companies have lied by claiming they could not find any employment records for Harrington, or images of her, yet they had her image deposited inside the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to the document.
Harrington took on the role of the pre-existing character of Aunt Jemima in 1935. In 1937, the company first registered the trademark for the brand. She was allegedly selected because of her own pancake recipe, which the company recreated for the mass market.
According to the suit, Quaker Oats sought out Harrington’s youngest daughter Olivia Hunter in 1989, ultimately using her likeness to update the look of Aunt Jemima. It is this image that is used today on Aunt Jemima-branded products.
The suit further alleges a racial element to the exploitation of Harrington and the other women who portrayed Aunt Jemima, going so far as to accuse the company of theft in procuring 64 original formulas and 22 menus from Harrington. It further alleges that Harrington was dissuaded from using a lawyer, exploiting her lack of education and age, so that the company could not pay her a percentage of sales from her recipes.
This exploitative history is the principle reason I don’t eat Aunt Jemima pancakes, and you shouldn’t either.