Earlier this year they announced that the Aunt Jemima pancake mix/ syrup brand changed its name to Pearl Milling Company. Aunt Jemima is a brand name that drips of a racial stereotype. Many know the infamous brand, but did you know the brand spawned a restaurant chain in the 1950s and 1960s?
In 1888, Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood purchased the Pearl Milling Company (hence the current name change). The pair of men were seeking to stand out in a crowded milling market and came up with a recipe for “Self-Rising Pancake Flour.” Rutt attended a minstrel show performed by the comedians Baker and Farrell. A highlight of the show was the Cakewalk performance to a catchy tune called “Aunt Jemima.” The comedians dressed in aprons and red bandana’s while singing the tune. Rutt used the name and the “Mammy” image to sell their pancake mix.
For those of you who are unaware, the “Mammy” stereotype originates from Slavery in the United States. The “Mammy” worked inside the slave master’s house as a cook or maid and took care of the slave master’s children. The first fictionalized version of the “Mammy” appeared in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. A “Mammy” is usually depicted as an older, overweight and dark-skinned African American woman. She is the idealized version of a servant, she is loyal, non threatening, obedient, maternal, submissive and most importantly always adhering to white authority.
In reality, during slavery most domestic slaves were teenagers or young adults, which contradicts the “Mammy” image. A big part of the “Mammy” role creation was an attempt to whitewash or reinterpret history by groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They created stories and stereotypes like this to show that slavery wasn’t as dehumanizing and sickening as it really was. In the “Mammy” stereotype, they always depict her as happy or content with being a slave, which was not the case in real life.
The “Mammy” stereotype still exists today and has been depicted countless times on Television and Movies. Think of the “Madea” character in Tyler Perry movies (Though admittedly more violent than the traditional Mammy), the character of Mama in That’s My Mama, Nell in Gimmie a Break, and Shirley in Whats Happening. Hattie McDaniel played many “Mammy” roles in her illustrious career. She played a “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind and in Song of the South. The most famous “Mammy” stereotype we all know is the beloved Aunt Jemima character.
Quaker Oats purchased the Aunt Jemima company in 1926. In 1955, the Disney corporation was planning to open Disneyland. The theme park wasn’t a sure thing to succeed, so Disney sought partnerships in helping run the theme park. Disney approached Quaker Oats about running a restaurant, and they made an agreement. Aunt Jemima’s Pancake house was the fruit of the partnership. It was located in Frontier land and specialized in serving Breakfast meals but eventually expanded into lunch and dinner fare. Quaker/ Disney even hired actresses to dress up as Aunt Jemima (aka a Mammy) and sing or talk to the patrons of the restaurant. The actresses even took pictures with patrons who wanted pics with the famous “Mammy.” Ironically, another restaurant in Frontier land was Swift’s Chicken Plantation. Aunt Jemimas was one of the more popular restaurants in the theme park.
With the success of the Disneyland location, Quaker Oats franchised Aunt Jemima Kitchens around the world. The first location opened in Skokie, Illinois. These restaurants offered a full service of food like the Disneyland location. In 1963, there were 21 Aunt Jemima locations in the U.S. and one each in the U.K. and Canada.
There was always backlash against the Aunt Jemima character in the Black community, but in the 1960s, Black power and Black pride become the rage as a growing fight for Civil Rights endured. In 1963, protests and criticisms stopped an Aunt Jemima Restaurant from being built in Rochester, NY. Sadly, this wasn’t a unified effort as a Black Rochester paper, The Frederick Douglass Voice, stated “These symbols are part and parcel of our heritage.” Clearly who ever wrote that has a misunderstanding of history.
In 1966, members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to picket the Aunt Jemima restaurant in the Chicago Edgewater Beach Hotel where their annual convention was held. AFT demanded that restaurant workers have the right to unionize and that the hostess not wear her “Mammy” costume. The restaurant relented and agreed. As the backlash over the Aunt Jemima character grew, more and more of the chains locations either closed down or switched names and themes.
In 1970, the Disney and Quaker agreement ended. At this point Disneyland was a success and didn’t need outside partnerships. Disney took control of the restaurant and renamed it Magnolia Tree Terrace. Since Aunt Jemima was a Trademarked character of Quaker Oats, the actresses portraying her disappeared from the theme park when Disney took control of the restaurant. Today the restaurant still exists in Disneyland, it’s known as River Belle Terrace. Most of us have probably eaten there and didn’t know of its Aunt Jemima origins. By the time of the 1970s, no single Aunt Jemima restaurant existed any longer. Even though the Aunt Jemima food brand finally changed its name, the “Mammy” stereotype still exists in our society today.
Originally published at https://mwmblog.com on March 18, 2021.