Many Greater Morristown residents are familiar with Aunt Jemima, the syrup and pancake mix that Quaker Oats is rebranding after 130 years of perpetuating a “racial stereotype.”
But some may be surprised to learn that a Morristown woman was the face of Aunt Jemima.
Ethel Harper, a singer and actress, wore the red-and-white gingham kerchief for three years in the mid-1950s, playing Aunt Jemima at fairs, festivals and charity fundraisers in a Quaker Oats promotional campaign.
An accomplished performer and distinguished civic figure, Harper felt degraded by the “mammy” portrayal, a job she took out of “grim necessity,” her pastor told The Star-Ledger after her death in 1979 at age 75.
Quaker Oats plans to rename the brand this fall, as the Black Lives Matter movement presses for societal changes in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
“We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough,” Quaker Vice President Kristin Kroepfl said in a statement.
The PepsiCo subsidiary pledged at least $5 million in donations, spread over five years, for “support and engagement” in the black community.
Inspired by the minstrel song Old Aunt Jemima, the image “hearkens back to the antebellum plantation,” Cornell University African American literature professor Riché Richardson told the Today show.”Aunt Jemima is that kind of stereotype that is premised on this idea of black inferiority and otherness.”
Uncle Ben’s rice, marketed with a black man’s likeness, also may be getting a makeover from its owner, Mars Inc., reported NBC News.
The singer KIRBY reacts to Aunt Jemima:
— KIRBY (@singkirbysing) June 15, 2020
Harper moved to Morristown after her show business career. She was revered for her work with the Girl Scouts –as the Morris Area Council’s first black field director — and for organizing nutritional and entertainment programs at the Wetmore Towers seniors complex where she lived, according to obituaries.
She also broke new ground by teaching black history in parochial and private schools, and moderated a radio show called Youth Speaks Out; Age Speaks Out — Are You Listening?
“You can no more teach what you haven’t learned, than you can come back from where you haven’t been,” she was fond of saying.
Harper won many civic awards and was included in The World Who’s Who of Women and Notable Americans.
FROM ALABAMA TO THE APOLLO
Orphaned in Alabama when she was 9, Harper was raised by an older brother. After graduating from junior college she spent a dozen years as a teacher in Birmingham. At age 30, she bought a bus ticket to New York. It changed her life.
Harper won an amateur hour competition at the Apollo Theater. That landed her a role in Hot Mikado.
Harper would perform on Broadway and in Europe. She appeared in Ed Sullivan’s Harlem Cavalcade, and sang in nightclubs. Touring with The Negro Follies and singing with the Three Ginger Snaps, she was especially popular in Italy.
Her friends included Josephine Baker and Edith Wilson, the first actress to portray Aunt Jemima, according to Harper’s archives at the Morristown & Township Library.
Communication is the key to improving race relations, Harper believed.
As she prepared to teach a black history course at a Morristown adult school in 1966, she expressed hope that the town could avoid the racial disturbances sweeping the country.
“I say let’s do something about them before they start happening,” Harper told The Daily Record.
She never stopped trying.
“My idea is to work until the day I die,” Harper told an interviewer. “Retirement for some is a time of gloom and despair. But as long as God has given me a voice, I’ll use it to make this a better world.”