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No evidence former slave who helped launch Aunt Jemima products became a millionaire

June 19, 2020 GMT

CLAIM: “Nancy Green (aka Aunt Jemima) was born into slavery. She was a magnificent cook. When she was ‘freed’ she rolled her talent into a cooking brand that General Mills bought & used her likeness. She died in 1923 as one of America’s first black millionaires.” 

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no evidence that Green’s portrayal as Aunt Jemima made her into a millionaire. 

THE FACTS: After Quaker Oats announced Wednesday that it would retire the Aunt Jemima brand, known for its pancake mixes, posts online began circulating a false tale about the first  woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima. 

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The claims about Green were shared widely across Facebook and Twitter. One post on Facebook had more than 9,000 shares.  

“Aunt Jemima really do you know her history?” a Facebook post carrying the false claim stated, criticizing Quaker Oats decision to remove the character from the brand. 

The brand got its name from the minstrel song “Old Aunt Jemima,” which was composed by African American comedian and performer Billy Kersands. Chris Rutt, who created the pancake flour in 1889, was inspired by the song after hearing it during a minstrel performance and decided to give the name to his pancake flour. At the time, Aunt Jemima was seen as a “mammy” character, a racial stereotype of a slave happy to please her white masters. 

Rutt then sold his company to a larger milling company, R.T. Davis Milling Co., after failing to sell the flour. The milling company brought its mix to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and hired Nancy Green, a former slave who was working as a cook for a judge, to act as Aunt Jemima and sell the pancake flour. 

“This began a really long tradition of women being Aunt Jemima in public performance,” said Maurice M. Manring, author of “Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima.” “Aunt Jemima became a national brand advertising nationally.” 

Manring added that the fame of the brand Aunt Jemima coincided with the explosion of advertising during World War I. The brand created a whole backstory for Aunt Jemima giving her a fictional family and creating made up events about her life. 

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However, there is no evidence that Nancy Green shared in any of the profits from the company that sold the pancake mix, said Patricia A. Turner, professor of African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author. 

Green would continue her work as a housekeeper and died in 1923 after being hit by a car.  

In “Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America,” author Micki McElya wrote that very few people outside Green’s close friends and fellow parishioners at Olivet Baptist Church were aware of her role as Aunt Jemima. 

The brand would replace Green as Aunt Jemima with several different women, including Anna Harrington. In 2014, the descendants of Harrington sued Quaker Oats and its parent company PepsiCo saying that Green and Harrington were exploited and asked for their shares in developing the brand. 

The decision by Quaker Oats to retire the Aunt Jemima name comes after weeks of protests demanding justice for George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed by police in Minneapolis, and national outrage over the treatment of black Americans in the U.S. 

On Wednesday, Quaker Oats told the AP that it acknowledged that Aunt Jemima’s origins were based on a racial stereotype. 

“While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough,” Kristin Kroepfl of Quaker Foods North America, said.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536