It’s been almost 100 years since Nancy Green, the real woman who was the first face on the Aunt Jemima brand’s iconic pancake and syrup containers, died at the age of 88. Now, in 2020, Green’s unmarked grave is finally getting a headstone, just as the pancake mix she once represented is being retired.
Quaker Oats recently announced it would retire the Aunt Jemima brand and “work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives.” The news prompted an internet explosion of relief and praise for the decision in some corners, outrage in others, and a whole bunch of Facebook memes claiming to tell the real story of the life of Nancy Green.
Green’s life story, in a nutshell, is this: She was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1834. In 1865, she moved to Chicago, where she was one of the organizers of the Olivet Baptist Church. She also worked as a maid and cook for a wealthy family, and became known as an excellent cook. When two businessmen developed a new self-rising pancake mix in the 1890s, they hired her to be the face of the brand. They named their pancake mix Aunt Jemima after hearing a blackface performer sing the song “Old Aunt Jemima” at a minstrel show. And they had Green dress as a slave mammy to represent their brand.
Green didn’t invent the pancake mix, as some of the memes have claimed. The recipe wasn’t hers. But she was a great spokeswoman – she represented the brand under the name Aunt Jemima at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where she attracted huge crowds to her booth and helped sell 50,000 orders of the pancake mix.
Green continued to be the face of Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923 (and Quaker Oats bought the brand just a few years after her death). Some of the memes claim that Green died a millionaire – some even call her the first Black female millionaire (in fact, that was Madam C.J. Walker). There’s no evidence that Green really was a millionaire, and her life isn’t sufficiently documented that anyone can name her net worth at the time of her death, but here’s some real evidence that she wasn’t a rich woman: Green was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Today, Chicago’s Bronzeville Historical Society is working to change that. The city’s Bronzeville neighborhood has been home to Black American luminaries including Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), and Ida B. Wells (1862-1931). Many of those luminaries are buried in the neighborhood’s historic Oak Woods Cemetery. So is Green, but you wouldn’t know it: Her grave is tucked away next to a brick wall with no headstone.
Sherry Williams, president of the historical society, has been spearheading a campaign to place a headstone at Green’s grave for more than eight years. In May 2020, just a month before Quaker Oats made their big announcement about retiring the Aunt Jemima brand, Williams finally got approval from the cemetery to add the headstone. Now she’s raising funds for the monument and waiting to learn what style of stone she’ll be allowed to place in that section of the cemetery.
“We in Chicago saw Nancy Green as our heroine,” Williams told Legacy. In fact, she says, a team of eighth-grade students won a recent Chicago Metro History Fair for their presentation on Green, in which they proposed text for a new headstone honoring her. Williams plans to use that text, or some variation of it, on the final monument. It will tell Green’s life story, finally giving her a fitting resting place.
How does Williams feel about the announcement that the Aunt Jemima brand will be retired? She’s not sure. Even though many see the Aunt Jemima caricature as racist and unacceptable, Williams still finds pride in remembering Green’s real-life accomplishments: “For many Black women, we’ve been in the margins and seen as irrelevant. Nancy Green shows just how relevant we are.”
Williams worries that the retirement is a symbolic gesture that might not amount to much. She speculated that perhaps a corporate donation to charity will accompany it, but “if there’s going to be some kind of reparations for this, there needs to be a lot of unpacking that comes with that. What are you going to do beyond changing what the package looks like? It could prove to be an erasing of the fact that the company made millions off of her image.”
One compromise that Williams could get behind is changing the name of Aunt Jemima Pancakes to Nancy Green’s Pancakes. “That, I’d consider very, very honorable.”