I was one of the throngs of people who raised a fist in victory when PepsiCo (the owner of Quaker Oats) decided to ditch its racist Aunt Jemima brand. The company deserves no applause; it knew its mammy mascot was problematic at least as far back as the 1980s when Aunt Jemima lost her bandana and donned pearl earrings. But the update did nothing to erase the underlying message on the pancake box: Black women are never happier than when serving white folks.
As I was declaring victory, a Black family in Southgate was far more circumspect. With the erasure of Aunt Jemima, a proud part of their family history is also being erased. “My great-aunt Maud was Aunt Jemima,” says Jocelyn Montgomery, a retired schoolteacher. “We’re proud of what she accomplished.”
Montgomery’s revelation stopped me short. As the symbols of racism topple one by one, we must also consider the legacy of the Black people who embodied them. Are they to be reviled for their perpetuation of racist images? Or, are they to be admired for exploiting the limited opportunities they had for personal success?
From the beginning, Aunt Jemima was a manifestation of the white imagination. She only came alive when the R.T. Davis Milling Co. hired former slave and Chicagoan Nancy Green to play Aunt Jemima to hock their pancake mix in 1890. Her minstrel-like show was a hit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, after which she received a lifetime contract. After Quaker Oaks bought the company in 1926, it revived the character in 1933.
Over the years, many Black women were hired to play the part of Aunt Jemima. In 1947, Montgomery’s great-aunt Maud Woodfork McElroy became one of them. Born in Montgomery’s hometown of Lebanon, Tennessee, McElroy had moved to Chicago to pursue her acting career.
When she went to a Quaker Oats audition for the radio part of Aunt Jemima, company officials told the New York Age that they were impressed by her “articulation, enunciation, and her ability to project her personality into the character.”
Beating out 80 other actresses, McElroy was signed with an annual salary “running into five figures,” according to the New York Age. “I was so young when she was around,” says Montgomery of her great-aunt Maud, who was born in 1892. “She was my grandmother’s sister. I remember them sitting together on the porch in Tennessee, rocking and talking. She once told my mother, ‘Never settle for what people think you should be. Be what you want to be.’”
That’s a powerful notion for a woman born just 27 years after slavery ended. It’s clear that she lived by that creed. “She had the wherewithal to go to Tennessee State to get a degree in acting,” says Montgomery, who, like her great-aunt, has a beautiful singing voice.
“She came back and taught school in a small town in Tennessee before going to Chicago to pursue her career.” How many Black women in the 1940s dared to get an education and pursue an acting career? Even today, only about a quarter of Blacks over the age of 25 have attained a college degree.
“The job allowed her to travel and perform at county fairs and events all over the nation,” Montgomery says. “My mom spent a summer with her in Chicago. She had a beautiful brownstone and a chauffeur.” The irony was not lost on Montgomery that the Aunt Jemima role also allowed McElroy to hire a maid.
When I asked Montgomery what she thought of her great-aunt Maud through the lens of 2020, she was thoughtful. “We will always be proud of what she accomplished,” she says. “To be honest, when they updated the Aunt Jemima image, it was like they had erased my family history.”
Montgomery’s son is my son-in-law, Adrian Montgomery. At 31, he never met his great-great-aunt. For him, it poses a dilemma, especially in this moment. “My ancestor was the face of a worldwide product,” he says.
“That’s something that even today, the average Black person only dreams about. I don’t want that history to be forgotten. But at the same time, she was put out there as everybody’s mammy. That’s offensive. But every time we fix breakfast for our kids, it gives me something to think about.”