KEY POINTS

  • Mars Inc. and Pepsi Co. said they are rebranding food brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's, and Mrs. Buttersworth in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that began in response to the death of George Floyd
  • The parent companies said these brands reinforced racial stereotypes rooted in pro-slavery propaganda in the U.S. South pre-dating the Civil War
  • Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Buttersworth were based on "Mammy" imagery, showing an obediant house slave that cared more for the white family than her own children

The wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others has forced the U.S. to re-examine iconography that carries racist history. Confederate statues have been taken down and the U.S. Army is looking into renaming bases named for Confederate generals, despite resistance from President Donald Trump.

This reappraisal has moved to the corporate world with brands like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Mrs. Buttersworth reconsidering the imagery that has courted controversy over the years. Aunt Jemima’s parent company, Quaker Oats, said Wednesday it would be rebranding the well-known pancake line.

“We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype,” Quaker Foods North America Vice President Kristin Kroepfl said in a public statement. “As we work to make progress toward racial equality through several initiatives, we also must take a hard look at our portfolio of brands and ensure they reflect our values and meet our consumers' expectations.”

“We will continue the conversation by gathering diverse perspectives from both our organization and the black community to further evolve the brand.”

Aunt Jemima has been a focal point of criticism for decades. Opponents said the name and logo reinforce racial stereotypes, despite changes to try and make it more socially acceptable. It also serves as an example of the history and social acceptance of such images by the public.

Created in 1889, the original image of Aunt Jemima was based on a woman and former slave named Nancy Green. Born in 1834, she was raised as a slave in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, and gained her freedom at the end of the Civil War. She relocated to Chicago and became a cook for a local judge who recommended she be the face of R.T. Davis Milling Co.’s pancake mix.

The first image of Green as Aunt Jemima appeared on bags of pancake mix from the Quaker Oats Co. Depicted as wearing a bandana and sporting a large smile, it was generally accepted as the brand’s logo for nearly a century by white America. Green would also serve as the brand's spokeswoman, appearing at the 1893 World's Fair. She died in 1923.

The image was redesigned in 1989 to “modernize” the brand, portraying Aunt Jemima as a black woman sporting pearl earrings and curly hair.

The brand faced challenges from civil rights groups and descendants of Green and other women hired to serve as the brand’s spokeswoman. This culminated in a 2014 lawsuit by descendants of Green and late Aunt Jemima spokeswoman Anna Harrington against Quaker Oats parent company, PepsiCo (PEP). Pepsi was sued for $2 million for making false promises and exploiting the services of Green and Harrington, who the lawsuit said were critical in creating the brand.

The lawsuit was dismissed in 2015.

David Pilgrim, director of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Big Rapids, Michigan, said the logo was one of many that echoed pro-slave propaganda from the South. He said Aunt Jemima, along with syrup brand Mrs. Buttersworth, were based specifically on “Mammy” imagery predating the Civil War South.

“The caricature portrayed an obese, coarse, maternal figure. She had great love for her white ‘family,’ but often treated her own family with disdain,” Pilgrim said in a post on the Ferris State University’s website. “Although she had children, sometimes many, she was completely desexualized. She ‘belonged’ to the white family though it was rarely stated.”

Gregory Smithers, a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor, echoed Pilgrim and cited the minstrel shows popular in the post-Civil War U.S. as another source of “inspiration” for the logo. It was in these shows that “Mammy” imagery and other stereotypes thrived and “blackface” became acceptable.

“The Aunt Jemima caricature was a product of the white imagination and the minstrel shows of 19th-Century America,” Smithers told MarketWatch. “Aunt Jemima was also part of the ‘blackface’ tradition that, in the decades after the Civil War, harkened back to a simpler time of plantations and ‘happy slaves.’”

While Uncle Ben’s rice brand wouldn’t be introduced until the 1940s, it also echoed stereotypes and practices accepted in the South during the Jim Crow Era.

Uncle Ben was created in 1943 by Erich Huzenlaub and Gordon Harwell. Originally known as Converted Brand Rice, the pair decided to change the name to Uncle Ben after a discussion about a Texas farmer known as Uncle Ben who became famous for his rice. Its logo was inspired by a man named Frank Brown, a black waiter from Chicago who worked at a restaurant Harwell frequented.

California State University historian Ronald L.F. Davis speaks of these practices in his paper, “Racial Etiquette: The Racial Customs and Rules of Racial Behavior in Jim Crow America.” In it, he discusses how black people living in the Jim Crow South were forced to adhere to practices rooted in slavery, including using titles of authority like “boss” in place of “master” when speaking to white people.

“All black men, on the other hand, were called by their first names or were referred to as 'boy,' 'uncle' and 'old man' -- regardless of their age,” Davis said.

Despite redesigns by parent company Mars Inc., Uncle Ben’s rice would face criticism similar to that of Aunt Jemim and also will be rebranded.

“Racism has no place in society. We stand in solidarity with the black community, our associates and our partners in the fight for social justice,” Mars said in a statement. “We know to make the systemic change needed, it’s going to take a collective effort from all of us — individuals, communities and organizations of all sizes around the world.”

The Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix will get a new name and image, after Quaker Oats said it recognized that "Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype The Aunt Jemima brand of syrup and pancake mix will get a new name and image, after Quaker Oats said it recognized that "Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype" Photo: AFP / Eva HAMBACH