The Fight To Commemorate Nancy Green, The Woman Who Played The Original 'Aunt Jemima'

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tags: racism, African American history, advertising

You probably don't know the name Nancy Green, but you'd recognize her face. The Chicago woman originally portrayed the Aunt Jemima trademark, and efforts are being made to preserve her legacy as Quaker Oats removes the Aunt Jemima name and image from their popular pancake products.

The brand name Aunt Jemima — which Quaker Oats officials admitted this week is "based on a racial stereotype" — was derived from an African American "mammy" character from a popular minstrel show in the late 19th century.

Green, a former slave who moved to Chicago to work as a caretaker for a prominent white family, was hired to portray a living version of the character at the 1893 World's Fair, according to her obituaries. She was later hired to play the role for the pancake company until her death.

Although the name Aunt Jemima is well-known, Green's is not. And one Chicago historian worries that removing the Aunt Jemima image could erase Green's legacy — and the legacies of many Black women who worked as caretakers and cooks for both white families and their own.

"Black mothers are not irrelevant," said Bronzeville Historical Society President Sherry Williams. "I look at Nancy Green as a Black mother figure, and Black women are the lifelines for generations, both Black and white."

Through extensive research, Williams learned Green was a philanthropist and ministry leader. Williams is now attempting to place a headstone on Green's unmarked grave, to help preserve the memory of the real woman as the character she portrayed fades away.


Romi Crawford, who researches African American visual imagery at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said Green had social and economic mobility not many African American women had at the time, which she leveraged to further the work of her church.

"That is absolutely the irony, that she is playing a role: a derogatory type and caricature of Black women," she said. "In actuality, this is a Black woman who was moving around the country and, in a way, the world. ... Her actual mobility in so many ways defied the stasis of the problematic caricature-type."


Read entire article at NPR

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