Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald via Shutterstock

Following a wave of racial awareness after the death of George Floyd in 2020, the PepsiCo brand faced backlash due to the mascot of their 1889 pancake mix and syrup. In response, they decided to change their old mascot, replacing her with something more generic. 

Major brands and companies were called out for the perpetuation of negative racial stereotypes in their marketing last year. In light of the backlash, many have chosen to respond by changing to be more racially sensitive. 

Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood bought the Pearl Milling Company in 1888. According to the African American Registry, “In 1889, Rutt attended a vaudeville show where he heard a catchy tune called “Aunt Jemima” sung by a blackface performer who was wearing an apron and bandanna headband. He decided to call their pancake flour “Aunt Jemima.” 

The next step in Rutt’s marketing plan was to find a face for his pancake flour. Auditions were held in Chicago and a woman named Nancy Green was given the part.

Nancy Green was born into slavery during 1834 in Kentucky. Following the end of the Civil War and her release from slavery, Green moved from Kentucky to Chicago. There, she became one of the organizers of Olivet Baptist Church, the oldest Black Baptist church in Chicago. To sustain herself, she worked as a domestic servant for a prominent family.

At the 1893 World Fair Colombian Exposition, Green stood at an “Aunt Jemima” booth, making pancake samples for anyone that wanted one. She was a hit, selling 50,000 boxes of pancake mix during the fair. The positive reception earned her a lifetime contract as the face of Aunt Jemima. 

Amid all the success and promotions, Green was never mentioned by PepsiCo. Instead, they focused on blending Green’s life with that of a “mammy” stereotype, knowing that they could inspire feelings of familiarity and security among white audiences with the tactic. 

“She was the trusted face back then,” Marcus Hayes, a descendant of Green, told ABC. ”Anybody who would look at an African-American woman cooking, they knew that they could trust her cooking.” 

Green continued to perform as Aunt Jemima until her death. Then, many other women would go on to take up the mantle of “Aunt Jemima.” 

One year after announcing the change to mixed responses, the new Pearl Milling Company bottles and boxes are beginning to appear in stores nationwide. 

In “Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory,” Kimberly Wallace-Sanders writes that “An African American woman, pretending to be a slave, was pivotal to the trademark’s commercial achievement in 1893. Its success revolved around the fantasy of returning a black woman to a sanitized version of slavery. The Aunt Jemima character involved a regression of race relations, and her character helped usher in a prominent resurgence of the ‘happy slave’ mythology of the antebellum South.”

But not everyone feels like removing Aunt Jemima from the cover of the iconic pancake mix is the best solution. When Vera Harris, a descendent of a later Aunt Jemima representative Lillian Richard, was asked how she felt about the change, her response was negative. 

“I was taken aback,” Harris told ABC. “I was really shocked. I knew people don’t realize those were real people and to phase them out would erase their history.”

Written ByCynthia Zelaya

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