Quaker Oats announced earlier this month it's rebranding Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup because of its racist history.
But descendants of Lillian Richard, who portrayed Aunt Jemima for years, say the company decided to rename the brand without consulting the families of the women who brought the character to life.
While Vera Harris, Richard’s niece, supports the decision and the Black Lives Matter movement, Aunt Jemima represents a part of history for her family and the town of Hawkins, Texas.
“Erasing my Aunt Lillian Richard would erase a part of history,” says Harris, who serves as family historian for the Richard family of Hawkins. “All of the people in my family are happy and proud of Aunt Lillian and what she accomplished.”
Aunt Jemima portrays the white, romanticized notion of an Antebellum “mammy,” detached from the cruel reality of enslavement during the late 19th century. The inspiration for the character came from the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” Starting at the World's Fair in 1893, a formerly enslaved woman named Nancy Green was the first to travel around the country wearing an apron and bandana as Aunt Jemima.
Richard served as one of 12 brand ambassadors starting in 1925. In Hawkins, a historical marker dedicated to her commemorates how she made a career during the time when Black women had very few opportunities.
When Richard turned 20, she went to Dallas to look for work during a time when most jobs for Black women were domestic maids and cooks, Harris says. Quaker Oats discovered Richard and offered her an ambassador job.
“I think she was excited about it because first off, it was a job,” Harris says, “and she would go around to give demonstrations at fairs, and at stores and other public places.”
To keep her aunt’s legacy alive, Harris says her family hopes Quaker Oats comes out with a commemorative box to recognize the many women who portrayed Aunt Jemima over the years. The back of the box could list their names and put a spotlight on one of the women each month, she suggests.
Harris would like to see the box include a photo of her aunt dressed as Aunt Jemima with the scarf — but also a photo of Richard looking like herself to show people a complete picture.
“She was an intelligent, young, vital, beautiful Black woman that took the job. She understood the times that she lived and she just wanted to work,” she says.
As a child, Harris’ family told her about her aunt’s portrayal of Aunt Jemima. Richard is buried near Harris’ parents, so the family hopes to continue celebrating her legacy.
Quaker Oats didn’t consult the Richard family before announcing their decision to rebrand, but Harris says they have since reached out to the company about preserving Richard’s legacy.
After all, Richard and the other Black women who played Aunt Jemima helped build the Quaker Oats brand.
“For that, I think Quaker Oaks owes them a large gratitude of thanks,” she says.
This segment aired on June 29, 2020.