A two-billion dollar lawsuit filed in Chicago federal court brings us to a story we have meant for years to tell on ACROSS OUR WIDE MISSOURI but we’ve never had the time to write it. Someday we’ll put it into the broadcast rotation but it probably will have a different angle to it than this tale today.
The lawsuit was filed by D. W. Hunter, the great grandson of Anna Short Harrington.
Now, understand that Anna Short Harrington was not a Missourian. We don’t know if she ever visited Missouri during her 58 years although she probably did. But that two-billion dollar lawsuit would not be in the courts if it was not for events in Missouri about 125 years ago.
But first, who was Anna Short Harrington? Friends called her “Annie.” She was born near the South Carolina town of Wallace, a poverty-stricken rural area, in 1896. A book written a few years ago, “The Story of Aunt Jemima,” says the Short family was a sharecropper raising tobacco and cotton on the 20,000-acre Peguese Plantation, now on the National Register of Historic Sites. One of her nieces who helped compile the book was Lenora Harrington Pegues.
She headed north to look for work to support herself and her two children after her husband Weldon took off, and landed in Syracuse, New York where she became a cook at fraternity houses at Syracuse University.
One day she was making pancakes at the State Fair when a representative of Quaker Oats spied her and signed her up to become the new image of Aunt Jemima pancake flour. Her image was used as that symbol until her death at the age of 58 in 1955.
The book recounts her first appearance as Aunt Jemima was in an ad in Women’s Home Companion, that she was paid well enough to tour as Aunt Jemima that she could buy a 22-room house and nearby bungalow.
The lawsuit filed by her great grandson claims her contract with Quaker Oats entitled her to royalties from the brand during the time she was its trademarked symbol. It also says the company took control of 64 of her recipes and 22 complete menus and made money by selling them to the public. It takes 108 pages for Hunter to explain his claims.
The lawsuit says Quaker Oats started using the image of Olivia Hunter, Annie’s youngest daughter, to update the Aunt Jemima image.
So that’s the end of the story as of now.
But how about the beginning? And how is Missouri involved.
It’s because “Aunt Jemima” pancake flour was born here. It’s kind of a winding story.
Back in 1875, African-American minstrel show comedian Billy Kersands wrote a song called “Old Aunt Jemima.” Kersands was the most popular black comedian of his time (he died in 1915) and made his living in African-American minstrel shows.
Several years later, the editor of the St. Joseph (MO.) Gazette, Chris Rutt, joined his friend Charles G. Underwood in buying a flour Mill. That was 1888. There was a lot of flour on the market so they had a lot left over. They decided they’d make money if they mixed it with corn flour, phosphates, and bicarbonate of soda, then re-branded it as Pearl Milling Co. ready-made pancake mix.
One night in 1889, Rutt went to a minstrel show where one of the white blackface performers sang the “Old Aung Jemima” song, inspiring Rutt and his partner to market their product as “Aunt Jemima’s” pancake mix. But their business faltered and they sold out to the Randolph Truett Davis Milling Co. in 1890.
Davis then hired Nancy Green, a former slave, as the company spokesperson later that year. She was Aunt Jemima until she died in the Fall of 1923. Her popularity was such that the Davis Milling Company renamed itself Aunt Jemima Mills in 1913.
Few people remember Aunt Jemima’s family. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders wrote a book about fifty years ago noting that early in the brand’s history, people could buy paper dolls of Aunt Jemima, her husband Rastus, and their five kids, Abraham, Lincoln, Dina, Zeb, and Dilsie. Rastus’ name was later changed to Uncle Mose because Cream of Wheat had a trademark figure named Rastus.
Quaker Oats bought the company in ’26 but did not have anybody touring the country as Aunt Jemima until seeing Anna Short Harrington at the New York State Fair in 1935. It trademarked her image two years later.
Quaker Oats introduced Aunt Jemima syrup in 1996. There also are Aunt Jemima frozen foods.
And that is how a blackface comedian’s song written by a black minstrel show entertainer performed in St. Joseph Missouri 125 years ago has become a two-billion dollar lawsuit filed in Chicago.