Whose mama? It Aunt Jemima.

June 23, 2020

      Knock knock.

      Who's there?

      Ain'tcha.

      Ain'tcha who?

      Ain'tcha mama on the pancake box?

     When you heard that joke in Rockingham as kids in the 1960s, you either laughed or punched somebody in the nose. You didn't talk about somebody's mama unless you were really good friends.

      Who knew, though, that Aunt Jemima used to live in Rockingham?

      We didn't.

      Anyone who would have known Anna Short Harrington in my hometown has - as we say - "been dead." But I knew people who knew her people.

      A little house on Hood Street behind Gene's Cleaners - you know, across the street from Mrs. Hager's house - was pointed out to me decades ago as the house she lived in before moving to Syracuse with a white family for whom she cooked.

      Historian David Haas, a writer at Storycuse.com, said Harrington was the second of three Aunt Jemimas. In addition to cooking for the family, she began flipping flapjacks to rave reviews for fraternity houses at Syracuse University. Quaker Oats, he said, discovered her cooking pancakes at the New York State Fair. 

     

      According to a timeline on the company's syrupy sweet, self-serving website - auntjemima.com - she represented the company from 1933 to 1955. She "travels the country promoting Aunt Jemima and is able to make enough money to provide for her children and buy a 22-room house where she rents rooms to boarders," it posted.

     

      Neither Haas nor Robert Searing, a historian with the Onondaga (NY) Historical Association, could say if she was able to purchase the house from her Aunt Jemima money or by supplementing her earnings as a cook. "Not enough is known about her," Haas said. "For instance, 'Was she happy?' I don't know."

      I know: If she was happy, it was only for a couple of months each year, before that hawk started blowing in from Canada.

 

      Harrington was born in South Carolina - Cheraw or Bennettsville - before moving to Rockingham and heading farther north. In her 1955 obituary, her two sisters are listed as living in Rockingham.

       Regardless of where she was born, it appears that Aunt Jemima has flipped her last flapjack, Jack. Quaker Oats, the brand that has made billions off of the image of a beaming fat black woman wearing a handkerchief on her head, announced that it is retiring the ol' girl. They have, I admit, made a lot of that scratch off of me: I've got two boxes of her mix at the crib right now, but her syrup?

      Nah, me and Mrs. Butterworth have had a thing going on for too long. We both know that it's wrong, but it's - 

      Oops, sorry. I was getting carried away on a syrup high.

      In an effort to make Auntie J seem less antebellum-ish, the company in 1989 updated her look, losing the handkerchief head and giving her a perm and pearls.

 

      That, alas, was not enough.

      "We acknowledge the brand has not progressed enough to appropriately reflect the confidence, warmth and dignity that we would like it to stand for today," Kristin Kroepfl, a vice president of Quaker Foods North America, said in a press release. "We are starting by removing the image and changing the name."

      The company also announced that it will donate $5 million “to create meaningful, ongoing support and engagement in the Black community.”

      Two of Harrington's great-grandsons wish Quaker Oats would meaningfully engage with the family. They filed a $3 billion lawsuit claiming that the company mass-produced her recipe and defrauded her out of royalties. According to court records I found, the two men - one of whom, Larnell Evans Sr., is from Albemarle - represented themselves in court; the company came in with an armada of lawyers who claimed, among other things, that Mrs. Harrington never was an employee of the company.

      Say what? Well, who is that on the pancake box?

       The case was dismissed in 2015.

      According to the auntjemima.com website, "Aunt Jemima was first brought to life by Nancy Green, a storyteller, cook and missionary worker."

      Somehow, the company neglected to mention that she was born into slavery. An honest oversight, no doubt.

      During our conversation, Searing noted that Harrington is buried in an unadorned grave in Syracuse's Oakwood Cemetery.

      He's right: I mean, there isn't even a spatula on her tomb to indicate the life she lived.

      "It’s amazing to think a woman who was such a celebrity" would be buried thus, he said, while also acknowledging that merely being buried in Oakwood Cemetery as a black woman in 1955 connoted a measure of fame. The same goes, he said, for the fact that her obit even appeared in the Syracuse Herald American newspaper.

      Also on the website, Mrs. Harrington was inexplicably, bafflingly, identified as "Anna Robinson."

      Even more bafflingly, the website's timeline with all information about all of the Aunt Jemimas was removed a day after I started seeking information on the name discrepancy. 

      Now that Aunt Jemima's griddle is being cooled, all one can say is "Look out, Uncle Ben. You're next.

      "And don't you get too comfortable, either, Mrs. Butterworth."

 

Barry Saunders is publisher of thesaundersreport.com.

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