[Note: My story is not written to give the complete history of the Aunt Jemima character. I’ve provided some links for you, if you’d like to do more reading. My story is about meeting a dynamic woman who portrayed Aunt Jemima, who happened to be a very loving and kind adult I met early in life. She had an impact upon me, due to the kindness she bestowed upon me that day.]
In 1957, I was a little third grader at Yakima, Washington’s Hoover School. Yakima is a small town, located on the eastern, dry side of the Evergreen State. It was then, and is now, an agricultural community. To say the area offers a fertile environment for growing crops is a vast understatement.
Two things I loved in 1957 were my school (Hoover), and school assemblies. I remember: one day, my teacher, Mrs. Hay, made an announcement to our class. She said we were going to attend a wonderful event, which would take place at our area high school, Davis High. We were going to bus-it to an assembly, to see and hear a woman named Aunt Jemima, who was going to talk to and entertain us. Well, we immediately knew who that was: she was the famous woman whose face graced the packages of pancake and cornbread mixes our moms bought at the store. I’m not sure we knew there was an actual person who called herself Aunt Jemima. We kind of figured people like Aunt Jemima, Betty Crocker and Uncle Ben were just made-up characters. To hear we were going to see someone named Aunt Jemima amazed us
Now, when kids hear exciting news like that, they really can’t contain themselves. Uproar happens! Lucky for us, Mrs. Hay was an experienced and kind teacher. She let us express our excitement, knowing that it was better for us to let it all out, rather than try to hold it in. We shouted and laughed, and we all talked at once. We made a lot of happy noise. When we finally calmed down, Mrs. Hay said to be prepared to be on our best behavior the following day.
The next day, Mrs. Hay and some other teachers, along with a few parents, escorted several Hoover classes to some waiting school buses. We proceeded to make the short, mile-and-a-half-or-so trip to Davis High, to see Aunt Jemima. And since we were representing our beloved Hoover School, we did make sure to be on our best behavior on the bus, and at the assembly — for Hoover and for Mrs. Hay.
We students arrived at Davis, and soon gathered in the large, beautiful auditorium in the old, historic school, which was once known as Yakima High School. It had been renamed for some adult named A. C. Davis. There were many kids in attendance. I believe several schools sent students to the assembly. It was a big deal!
I’m not sure who introduced her – perhaps someone from the Yakima school district did the honors; but a grownup introduced Aunt Jemima, and the remarkable lady took the stage to thunderous applause.
Ms. Ethel Ernestine Harper, who was approximately 54 years old when she visited Yakima, regularly toured the United States, appearing in the persona of Aunt Jemima. She wasn’t the first woman to tour as Aunt Jemima; but I’ve learned she was the last. In the 1960’s, the company which owned the Aunt Jemima brand stopped using a living person as its spokesperson. This saved them money, as they no longer had to pay someone to represent them. Nor would they have to pay royalties to anyone, whenever her voice or face appeared on television. Plus, society was changing. People were speaking out more and more about the kind of racial stereotyping which was going on here.
Obviously, Aunt Jemima’s character was based on the racist stereotype of the docile, always-smiling “mammy”. However, I didn’t see that at the time. I was only eight. What I perceived was an amazing human being.
Although Ms. Harper was a college graduate, who had been a school teacher, as well as a singer and entertainer, and had appeared on the Broadway stage, she was not dressed as a professional person for our visit. She was dressed as a plantation cook, wearing a red scarf and white apron. I recall she talked about eating a good breakfast, about always being good students, about displaying good manners, and minding our parents. I believe she sang a song or two. — I was such a little boy. (I asked my Facebook group friends for help with this story, but I was the only one who remembered this event at all.) I do know that every child received an “Aunt Jemima Breakfast Club” button which featured the famous image, to pin onto his or her blouse or shirt.
After Aunt Jemima gave her talk, she invited any interested kids to come up and say hello. Well, I was one of the first kids who lined up to do so. I remember very clearly, how she gave me a big hug. I was so happy. I truly felt like she loved me – a little boy whom she had never before cast eyes upon. I walked on air for the rest of that day, if not for the rest of that week. Or month.
Now, I see that Aunt Jemima, or at least, Ms. Harper, was a little like “Miss Lou”, the iconic Jamaican teacher/actress/singer/poet who traveled the world as an ambassador for the Jamaican culture. I recently wrote about her my blog. Miss Lou was preaching Jamaican native pride. She used her “Miss Lou” persona as a means to get her foot in the door, to gain a voice, where she could then comment on the racial discrimination native Jamaicans were experiencing. I wonder if the woman I saw dressed as Aunt Jemima had the same intentions?
I came from a show business family. When I was seven, I met Gene Autry and Gail Davis, who played Annie Oakley. I met Jet Jackson, aka Captain Midnight, around the same time. My Daddy was a funny, cowboy disc jockey known as Cowboy Pinkeye. His persona was partly make-believe, and partly his natural, sweet, outgoing personality. That’s how I saw Aunt Jemima. I knew the woman standing before us was an actress. I wasn’t aware of the negativity which surrounded the mammy character. As she engaged with us at the assembly, singing her songs, preaching and spreading the love, I was entranced. I found her extremely likeable. Here she was, in front of a roomful of strangers; but she had us in the palm of her hand in no time, with her sweet, gentle, wise ways.
I hadn’t met many black people in 1957. For reasons I didn’t understand at the age of eight, there were no black people living in my neighborhood. There were no black kids in my classroom. Aunt Jemima was one of the first African-American persons I met. (A couple of years later, my parents bought me a YMCA membership, and I was able to meet many boys of all races. I was glad. I’ve always been multi-culturally oriented. I’ve always wanted to live in a world which is inclusive; one which offers true equality to all people. And one which pays respect to all people.)
What I heard that day from Aunt Jemima – eat right, behave, count your blessings — was not new to me. I had been raised by two kind and loving parents, who always fed me right, kept me safe, and taught me to behave myself. But hearing it from Aunt Jemima helped to bring home the message that much more. Like every kid, I would believe just about anything a famous person said.
I’m not sure what the white people in charge of the Aunt Jemima company, and the people in charge of the Yakima school district, wanted me to take away from this event. Was it an assembly meant to help us learn about nutrition? Was it intended to show us a “real black person”? Ethel Ernestine Harper herself was a very accomplished human being. But the mammy character she played was a caricature. I just go back to my original thought: I was eight. I saw a great woman. We didn’t learn about racism in elementary school in Yakima in 1957. Had I been properly educated, I think I would have had a different reaction to the Aunt Jemima character –had I known how offensive it was and is, to many people of all races.
I wish Ethel Ernestine Harper were alive today, so I could thank her for bringing her message of love to Yakima, all the way back in 1957. It was a sincere message I took to heart. But I’m very sorry she had to appear as a mammy. I guess, had she been dressed like our principal, or like our teacher, there would have been no assembly.
Notes, thoughts, etc.:
It wasn’t that long ago:
My mom, Jane Amanda Randolph, was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She grew up with a family mammy named Effie. Effie was not that much older than Mom. She lived with the family (our ancestors, the three Randolph Brothers, were state governors. My name, Randy, is the nickname for my middle name, Randolph. The Randolph Brothers were slave owners.) Effie lived with the family, but she was not family. She was there to earn a small wage, along with her room and board. Her job was to help my mom and her six brothers and sisters. – To do chores for them. I met her in 1953, when I was four. She was the second African-American I ever met.
Ms. Ethel Ernestine Harper, the Aunt Jemima I met, also played the Apollo in New York. She also sang with the Three Ginger Snaps, and appeared in The Hot Mikado with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. She went on to become a Girl Scout leader later in life. She died of a heart attack in 1979. For a truly illuminating article about Ms. Harper, please see this website: http://www.jfpl.org/HCFindingAids/HarperEthelErnestine.xml
Regarding another actress who played Aunt Jemima: The family of Anna Short Harrington, who portrayed Aunt Jemima in earlier times, is suing Pepsico for back royalties. Quaker Oats, now owned by Pepsico, is accused of not honoring their contract with Ms. Harrington. In her story regarding this, Jerika Duncan, CBS reporter, had this to say on CBS’s “This Morning”: “Aunt Jemima’s iconic face will long be associated with a part of our history that’s not so sweet”.
FYI: I understand the original Aunt Jemima pancake recipe, made from four types of flour, was rather nutritious. The current owners (Pepsico) have turned the mix into a one-flour mix, filled with chemicals.
Here is a link to my story about Jamaica’s Miss Lou: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/jamaicas-mother-of-culture-comes-to-life-in-the-form-of-a-vintage-cloth-doll/
Essay entitled “The Mammy Caricature”: http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/mammies/
Essay entitled, “Media Depictions of the Mammy Archetype”, by Sean Smith: http://iforcolor.org/mammy-sean-smith/
Irony strikes: In 1973, I performed on that same Davis High School auditorium stage, with my band, the Western Electric Band, at a benefit for stranded migrant farm workers. I wrote about that a few months ago. You can find that story on my blog: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/no-good-deed-goes-un-dissed/
People seem to enjoy writing songs about Aunt Jemima. Here is one: