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The Syracuse resident that portrayed Aunt Jemima, and the racist history of the character

An image of Anna Short Harrington, who portrayed Aunt Jemima, from a lawsuit filed against Quaker Oats, seeking billions in royalties. The lawsuit was tossed out.
An image of Anna Short Harrington, who portrayed Aunt Jemima, from a lawsuit filed against Quaker Oats, seeking billions in royalties. The lawsuit was tossed out.
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Anna Short Harrington is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, gaining notoriety before her death in 1955 for portraying Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats for 14 years. She moved to Nedrow, New York, in the 1920's from South Carolina. Harrington worked as a maid for a white family in the area and later as a cook for Syracuse University fraternities.

"It would have been a very primary occupation, particularly for African American women at that time," said Robert Searing, Curator of History at the Onondaga Historical Association, "In whatever domestic servitude role, whether it be maid, house cleaner, a cook, that would definitely have been one of the primary avenues of employment for Black women, and also for Black men. It would be one of the few areas where they could work in Northern cities where segregation was obviously rampant."

As the story goes, members of the SU fraternities loved Harrington's pancakes. This lead to her demonstrating her pancake recipe at the New York State Fair. It was there that a representative from Quaker Oats hired her to portray Aunt Jemima.

"She became a national celebrity, getting flown around by Quaker Oats, giving pancake demonstrations across the country," said Searing.

Harrington gained fame and fortune working as Aunt Jemima, and was likely an important figure in the Syracuse Black community at the time. Harrington owned a 22 room house on Monroe Avenue, which she operated as a boarding house. Her house, along with many others in the city's fifteenth ward, would be lost to urban renewal development and the construction of Interstate 81 in the 1960's.

Quaker Oats announced on Wednesday that they are removing the image and branding of Aunt Jemima from their products. The character Harrington had played has racist origins, influenced by "mammy" characters featured in Blackface minstrel shows in the late 1800's.

"The mammy character really has its roots in Vaudeville and Blackface minstrel shows," said Searing, "Some scholars point to the fact that it was created by whites to romanticize the idea of slavery. Here you have this very happy black woman, this maternal figure who is just so thrilled to be dedicating her life to taking care of white children. The idea that many scholars of American Slavery point to this character most likely never existed, but it becomes a popularized figure."

The first person to play Aunt Jemima was Nancy Green, who was born into slavery in the early 1800's. According to historians, a man who helped run Quaker Oats at the time was influenced by watching a Blackface minstrel show, seeing the potential in using the "mammy" image for marketing purposes. Quaker Oats began production of Aunt Jemima pancake mix in the 1880's - Green would then be hired to portray Aunt Jemima.

"That character would have been familiar to American audiences from Vaudeville and from the Blackface minstrel shows, so they would have been aware she would have been a really beloved figure so they capitalized on that," said Searing.

Part of Harrington's marketability in becoming Aunt Jemima, following Green's death, was that she had a southern accent as a native of South Carolina.

"Quaker Oats took advantage of that because it tied right in with the sort of original "mammy" character that Aunt Jemima was based on," said Searing.

Riché Richardson is an Associate Professor of African American Literature at Cornell University. In 2015, she wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times detailing why images like Aunt Jemima need to be removed.

"It is an image of Black womanhood rooted in, as I've said in some of my work, the ongoing assault on the Black maternal body within slavery," said Dr. Richardson, "her qualities and characteristics included being a caretaker, particularly for the children of her white master and mistress, while being more detached or indifferent for caring for her own children. So, historically, this imagery is part of a nostalgic view of the old south that romanticized slavery."

Aunt Jemima is part of a larger debate surrounding the place of images and symbols that persist in our culture today, ranging from food brands to sports teams to statues of historical figures. It is important to understand the history and pain they can cause, according to Dr. Richardson.

"Its not about how we think about these images privately, as much as their public impact. And the question of whether they belong in public spaces so they can rehearse the traumas linked to them overtime," said Richardson.

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Quaker Oats has announced that Aunt Jemima imagery and branding will be removed from all products by the end of the year.

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