The New Jersey connection to Aunt Jemima
This week, Quaker Oats announced that it was retiring its venerable Aunt Jemima brand due to its racial insensitivity, saying “We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype.” Well, it turns out that there is a New Jersey connection to the iconic, yet controversial mascot: the last real woman to be Aunt Jemima was a Morristown woman named Ethel Harper.
The logo was designed in 1889, but real women were eventually used both for commercials and in-person appearances and Ethel Harper was the last one (and the first one to be depicted on television). After 1958, a composite drawing was used. According to the Morristown Green, Harper played the role in commercials as well as at fairs, festivals, and charity fundraisers.
Harper was an accomplished performer. After teaching in Alabama for 12 years, the Morristown Green writes she moved to New York and started performing at the Apollo Theater. She went on to act on Broadway and perform with various singing groups. she performed for the troops in World War II as part of the Four Ginger Snaps. In 1950 she auditioned for, and got, the part of Aunt Jemima, wearing a red and white gingham kerchief on her head. While she may have wanted the role at the time, she later called the experience of playing a “mammy” degrading.
According to the New York Times, the character of Aunt Jemima was based on an old minstrel song. After Quaker Oats decided to eliminate the individual Aunt Jemima for the composite version, Harper moved to Morristown. There she became a fixture in civic life, devoting her time to projects like the Girl Scouts, Meals on Wheels, community outreach for senior citizens, hosting a radio show on WMTR, and teaching black history at area adult, private, and parochial schools. She died in 1979 at 75 years of age.
The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.