Earlier this month, when Quaker Oats announced that Aunt Jemima would get a new name and logo, a 47-year-old truck driver named Larnell Evans, Jr. received the news with some ambivalence. Evans is the great-great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, one of several actresses who played Aunt Jemima at fairs and in advertisements throughout the early 20th century. The company’s rebrand and future $5 million donation rang hollow to him. “That’s the easy way for them to go,” Evans tells The Daily Beast. “I guess you would say, that’s saving money.”
He had a different reckoning in mind. Six years ago, Evans and his nephew, Dannez Hunter, tried to confront Quaker Oats about their shared history in federal court. In September of 2014, they filed a federal lawsuit against PepsiCo, the corporate owner of Quaker Oats, alleging that Harrington had helped develop Aunt Jemima’s signature self-rising pancake mix, and that the company had used her likeness as its logo without providing proper compensation. They asked for $2 billion in relief and a share of sales revenue.
“In Aunt Jemima, [Quaker Oats] still possesses one of the most recognizable and thus valuable trademarks in history,” the complaint read. “Defendants actions epitomise what is the worst in corporate America, exemplifying the worst business practices anywhere on the planet.” (Following publication, Quaker Oats stated, “Aunt Jemima was not a real person or based on one individual. During the first few decades of the 20th Century, in support of the already-existing brand, there were women hired to represent Aunt Jemima at public events and in marketing materials.”)
The legal saga spanned five years of filings, but collapsed after a Chicago judge dismissed the case, and later barred Hunter from further filings without court approval. The loss hinged less on the content of their case, however, than its presentation. Throughout the dispute, Hunter and Evans represented themselves without an attorney. Hunter drafted the motions; Evans proofread. “Law was always a very interesting topic for both of us,” Evans said. “But we wish we’d hired a lawyer, because they didn’t take the case seriously.”
While the documents often reflected a firm grasp of legal convention, Hunter at times slipped into first person or implied larger conspiracies (none too different from actual malicious actions the American government carried out against Black people). Still, the documents’ idiosyncrasies elicited snark from judicial authorities. “At over 50,000 words, Hunter’s complaint is longer than both The Great Gatsby and the King James Bible’s version of the Book of Genesis,” the dismissal of a subsequent filing in Minnesota reads. “The overlong complaint meanders across a vast landscape pocked by conspiracy. Portions of the complaint are written in what appears to be Chinese.”
A good deal of the original complaint, however, bears out in contemporaneous reports about Harrington’s life and work. Born in 1897, Anna Short Harrington grew up in Marlboro County, South Carolina, and worked as a sharecropper on a cotton and tobacco plantation for several years. In the 1920s, according to a Nov. 12, 1995 newswire article syndicated across the country, Harrington moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for several college fraternities. A skilled cook, Harrington earned a reputation at the frats for her pancakes, which soon spread around campus and into the city.
Harrington became a kind of local celebrity who appeared in regional news and at state fairs, preparing her sought-after recipes for large crowds. It was at one such fair in 1935, according to The Story of Aunt Jemima, a children’s book from South Carolina author John Troy McQueen, that the Quaker Oats Company recruited Harrington to play Aunt Jemima. The position took Harrington around the country, to perform at store openings and other public events, according to her entry in the South Carolina Encyclopedia, a joint archival project from several universities. “By the time of her death,” the entry reads, “the former sharecropper owned two homes and lived in an area occupied by the black elite of Syracuse.”
“She had her own recipes, which was very unique,” Evans said. “You didn’t hear of people having their own recipes—especially working for Quaker Oats. You would think, working for Quaker Oats, whatever they hired them to do, that’s what they would do. And she was promoting Quaker Oats products. But she was also promoting her own products.”
The lawsuit Evans and Hunter filed hinged on the Aunt Jemima logo that Quaker Oats copyrighted in 1936, the year after she began working for them. They claimed the image was based on a rendering of Harrington’s face, as laid out in a contract signed by both parties.
But Quaker Oats rejected the claim—arguing the character was fictitious and had never been based on a living person. This is a line Quaker Oats has stuck to since at least 1948, when they renewed the alleged Harrington trademark, and added a note stating the image did not depict a living person. And as recently as 2015, when historian Sherry Williams found the long-missing grave of Nancy Green, the most famous Aunt Jemima, Quaker Oats refused to fund her gravestone. “Their corporate response was that Nancy Green and Aunt Jemima aren’t the same—that Aunt Jemima is a fictitious character,” Williams told WBEZ Chicago.
The precise terms of Harrington’s employment remain unclear. Before the lawsuit, Evans and Hunter requested Quaker Oats provide Harrington’s contract for review. In an email submitted as evidence, Quaker claimed they were “actively searching for contracts that would pertain to Ms. Anna Harrington,” but could not locate any document negotiating her terms.
In the end, PepsiCo filed to dismiss the case on three grounds: that the statute of limitations had lapsed; that their 15 claims either weren’t recognized by law, weren’t established with evidence, or were implausible; and that the uncle and nephew lacked documentation proving their relation to Harrington or her estate. Evans found it galling.
“We had a family tree. We have all the death certificates. We have the obituaries. There’s no way that they can say, ‘Oh they’re not related,’” the 47-year-old father said. “I always knew she played Aunt Jemima. That’s just a given fact.”
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