Wonder What Happened To Aunt Jemima?

When I was growing up, my favorite breakfast was Aunt Jemima pancakes. Before I escaped out into the world on my own, it was mostly my grandparents who raised me. It didn't happen often, maybe just when she felt good for some reason or maybe when she had managed to squirrel away a couple of extra dollars to afford it, but on an occasional Saturday morning, my grandmother would make pancakes with Aunt Jemima mix. Oh happy days! The only kind of syrup I knew of was dark maple that came in a tin can; a very large tin can. We didn't have pancakes all that often so that can of syrup lasted a very long time. Eventually the syrup crystallized, but rather than throw it out and buy fresh, my grandmother would put that can in a pot of boiling water until the syrup became liquid again. I'm sure that wasn't the most healthy thing to do, but what did we know about being healthy back in those days before enlightenment? Eventually, the syrup tasted like burnt sugar so I'd just take my Aunt Jemima pancakes dry and wash them down with a big glass of healthy whole milk.

The modern version of Maple Syrup in a can.
Then Quaker Oats came out with Aunt Jemima syrup. Aunt Jemima pancakes with Aunt Jemima syrup was like having a little piece of heaven in your mouth! One of the few arguments I remember my grandparents having was over syrup. Paw-Paw got mad because Grandma "wasted money" on a few ounces of Aunt Jemima syrup when she could have gotten about a gallon of cheap-ass rot-gut maple syrup in a tin can for the same price.

In my childish way of thinking back then, the Aunt Jemima character became a symbol of maternal love and warmth and comfort. After all, if Grandma would spend some of what little money she had buying Aunt Jemima food and fixing it for me, then that must mean she loves me! Many years later, after Paw-Paw had passed on, I noticed the only syrup Grandma had in her house was Aunt Jemima. I also noticed she always had Aunt Jemima pancake mix in the cupboard. I told her I remembered when she made Aunt Jemima for me as a kid and how special those rare mornings were to me. She responded, "We would have had them a lot more often if Andy (my grandfather) had let me spend the money. What? Did you think I enjoyed making stuff from scratch every morning? When I could get away with buying them, I used mixes 'cause that was easier!" Sometimes cherished memories die a sudden and horrible death.

I started wondering though, was the Aunt Jemima icon just a picture or was there a real Aunt Jemima? And if she was real, what happened to her? Turns out, there was indeed a real live Aunt Jemima. Several in fact.

The first person hired in 1890 to portray Aunt Jemima was 300-pound Nancy Green, a former slave from Kentucky. She signed a lifetime contract with the R. T. Davis Milling Company, owners of the Aunt Jemima brand. She traveled around the country promoting the pancake flour product and when she operated a pancake cooking display booth at the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, she and her off-the-cuff statement "I's in town, Honey" became famous. She continued to portray Aunt Jemima, opening each of her appearances with "I's in town, Honey," singing songs and telling stories of the Old South until her death on September 24, 1923. Some in the African-American community protested that she was being exploited by white men, but being a bit more pragmatic perhaps, she stated, "I was born a slave and now I've been all over this country and have more money than I ever dreamed about so I ain't complaining."

In 1913, the company was renamed Aunt Jemima Mills and in 1926, the Quaker Oats Company purchased the brand. In 1933, they hired the second person to play Aunt Jemima, Anna Robinson. She portrayed the character at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and continued her job until the late 1940's. She died in 1951.

Four more people were hired to be Aunt Jemima after Anna, each portraying the icon at numerous fairs, on TV and radio and other personal appearances around the country. In the 1940's through the early 1960's, several ladies portrayed her at the same time. One, Alyene Lewis, was Aunt Jemima only at the Aunt Jemima Cafe in Disneyland, talking to customers and posing for pictures while Ethel Harper, Ann Harrington, and Rosie Hall made the appearances around the country.

By the early 1960's, the only "Aunt Jemima" was Rosie Hall. Born in a small wooden house 9 miles outside Hearne, Texas in 1899, Rosie married early in life. That marriage failed and she moved to Oklahoma in her 20's. Eventually she remarried and got a job working for Quaker Oats in the advertising department. When the company needed another Aunt Jemima, she was "discovered." Until her death in 1967, she toured the country promoting the Quaker Oats Company and delivered the message of a warm, caring, motherly woman serving up delicious breakfasts.

Ms. Rosie's headstone. She is surrounded by
loved ones.RIP Rosie.
During her time touring the country, she always returned every Christmas and Thanksgiving to the Blackjack Community where she was raised and had family. When she passed away on February 12, 1967, she was buried at the Hammond Colony African-American Cemetery near Blackjack.

I visited the Hammond Colony cemetery on a Wednesday afternoon. It's in a very rural area and hard to find. It was several miles of 2-lane blacktop and then 2 miles on a worn, pot-holed 2-lane blacktop and then another mile down an even rougher 1 1/2 lane semi-blacktop road. If you get there, you were either going there on purpose or were seriously lost. I missed the last turn twice and had to retrace before I figured it out.

When I arrived, there were 3 men sitting on the tailgate of an old beat-up pickup truck having a smoke. Leaning against the truck were hoes, rakes, and shovels. One of the men, shirtless with dirty streaks of sweat dripping down his neck and chest, approached me with a weed eater in his hand. He was getting on up there in years, but still had broad shoulders and heavily muscled arms and he did not have a smile on his face. Here I am in the middle of nowhere and in front of me are 3 younger, tough-looking men who do not appear to be in a friendly welcoming mood at all. The thought of a horrible death by weed eater did run through my mind, but nothing from nothing leaves nothing so I put a smile on my face and walked up to the apparent leader of the group, stuck out my hand to shake and introduced myself. The scowl on his face didn't change, but he did change hands with the weed eater to shake my hand. I told him I was seeking the grave of Rosie Hall and when he asked why, I told him about my memories from childhood of Aunt Jemima pancakes. He finally smiled and told me his name is John, Rosie was his aunt and he remembers her well.

He used to sit in her lap when she came home for holidays and she told him about all the places she had traveled in her job. He introduced me to the other two guys and offered to take me to her grave. He told me he had recently been elected president of the Hammond Colony Cemetery Association and he had been drafting male friends and neighbors for the last month to clean the place up. Nobody had been taking care of it over the last 20 years and it had been covered in weeds, vines, and fallen tree limbs. Now, the tree limbs had been removed, most of the weeds had been pulled, the fence repaired and you could see the gravestones again. Rosie lies surrounded by members of her family in this very quiet, peaceful, tree-shaded place of eternal rest.

John left me beside her grave, went back to his truck's tailgate and lit up another smoke. I took a couple of pictures. The only sound was the clicking of my camera. I rested my hand on her headstone and quietly thanked her for the memories even though she wasn't actually responsible for them. I'll forget that convenience was the real reason for baking with the Aunt Jemima mix as I prefer the false memories of love that comforted me during those times.

I left and walked past John and his two draftees'. I told him thanks and got a nod of his head in return. I got in my truck and started her up. It was time to travel on down the road.