Morristown woman was the face of Aunt Jemima

Ethel Harper portraying Aunt Jemima in the 1950s. Image from the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers, 1905-1981, courtesy of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library
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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. Photo from the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers, 1905-1981, courtesy of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

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:

 

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.

Ethel Harper, as Aunt Jemima, makes an appearance via helicopter. Photo from the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers, 1905-1981, courtesy of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

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.

Ethel Harper, top, with the Ginger Snaps. Photo from the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers, 1905-1981, courtesy of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

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.”

Ethel Harper performing. Photo from the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers, 1905-1981, courtesy of the North Jersey History & Genealogy Center of the Morristown & Morris Township Library.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. It was not white people who had a problem with this, but of course white people get/take the blame do to pressure from being called racists. It was a black professor from Cornell University, Riché Richardson. She has had a problem with it for years and wrote papers on it. She is so offended at the use of this proud black leader! Truly disgusting! I loved using a product from a black woman who could cook! I will switch brands now.

  2. In my opinion when you start burning the books to erase the past or silence An opposing viewpoint you’re not learning anything about the ideology behind it. So many people were killed in concentration camps in World War II and yet after the war and the discovery of the camps they were turned into museums so people for generations could visit and understand what happened. You can remove every statue flag and monument that offend you but it will not educate you. And 200 years from now no one will even believe there was a war a Civil War and slavery ever existed. If we don’t know our history we are doomed to repeat it.

  3. I’m sorry Joseph brown, as a black women I truly do enjoy her face. She‘s not offensive to me. I’m also not offended of images of women in the 1950’s being portrayed as happy housewives. We can not pay for our fathers sins. Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a different time, that we are progressive people. Now if we could all work on the judgement that we all inflicted on one another that would be Progress.

  4. @Janet Cristofori…while respecting your opinion on the subject of products that hold a multitude of opinions…please limit your responses to facts when you speak on lynchings and any type of violence inflicted on African American. If I am correct you are referring to March 14, 1891 when 11 Italian Americans were lynched in New Orleans. Yes, this is documented as one of the largest single mass incidents by numbers; however, look at lynchings in the entire nation by numbers over a period of time. White people were also lynched. Unfortunately, this does not equate to the 4,743 lynchings occurred in the US, from 1882-1968, and of these people that were lynched 3,446 were African American. African Americans lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched. Oh, and please let us not forget…lynching didn’t end in 1968…not only did it continue, it changed form…but that’s another topic of discussion.

  5. If you ever met “Miss Ethel” Harper she probably left you with the sense that she was something special.

    My first job after college was hosting the afternoon and weekend radio shows on WMTR in Morristown, at a time when Miss Ethel had her one hour Saturday morning public affairs interview show.

    On occasion, I was tasked with running the control board for her show, and setting up the interview studio for her guests. One of my distinct memories of that experience was that while I thought of myself as an adult by then, when Miss Ethel wanted a microphone adjusted or a chair moved she would always address me as “Hey You Boy !!” which after a few seconds of processing I got a great kick out of because she was from a different era. She was very proud to tell me that she had been the model for Aunt Jemima more than once, so I am disappointed to hear that there were times when she was not, and I now understand that too.

    I also remember how much her friends, fans, and neighbors at her senior living apartments in Morristown absolutely adored her. She was a true leader. I count myself as lucky to be able to think back on what this memorable woman from another time was like, it provides perspective, and I will never be able to feel a personal connection to the picture on a box of pancake mix. Things change, good memories do not. Ethel Harper was a very memorable woman.

  6. I agree Lisa….changing images and names of black American history is wrong…when you hear aunt jemima you think of breakfast…when you hear uncle Ben’s you think of rice…these and others have been a staple for generations and should stay.

  7. This stuff about Aunt jamima and the other products are not racist at all just because they are black how stupid that is black history don’t change it black people are proud of those labels

  8. Removing the picture of Ethel Harper, portrayed as Aunt Jemima, will actually have little impact on the current situation. Removing historical statues did nothing to improve relations. For those who choose to be offended, will be. Attitude is the only thing that must change and the only change worth making. Until society can see past skin color, nothing will change. Everyone bleeds red! Not seeing Aunt Jemima’s beautiful smiling face in the morning will be a change I don’t cherish. We have been eating pancakes together for 57 years. Without her beautiful, smiling face I may as well eat something cheaper.

  9. “Those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.”
    ― Christopher Hitchens

  10. I remember lou blanchard from chicago being her and I’ve heard of Ethel as well. If you ask me the real concern should be about the poison in the bottle. The high fructose corn syrup is what causes diabetes and is the real problem not some persons pic. Why not have a white , asian, and latino aunt Jemima depending on store demographic area. Marketing Co’s have done it for decades. Now we even have a black ” jake from state farm” all to cater to viewers. This arguement about aunt Jemima is silly just a way for Democrats to deflect from obama and Biden never doing anything for race relations over their 8 years, never getting rid of Confederate flags and racist statues. And Joe biden making it worse for blacks in general with the 1994 crime bill. That imprisoned more young black men because of it. And they want to control your minds with confusion of hate and a character like aunt Jemima. What’s next – famous amos cookies are racist ??

  11. So no one is getting that this woman was ashamed of this pic and the job but had to do it. My opinion keep the pic with her bio

  12. Using someone’s name when posting has nothing to do with political correctness. But it is a good idea to do that. I’m glad that I do, and I am happy to see that others do, too. Good point!

  13. Political correctness should require people to have the courage to use their name when voicing opinions for unknown reasons.

  14. Imagine getting up each day and searching for something to be offended by. That’s obviously how many people live. Plenty of outrage and false outrage over the silliest stuff. Nothing is too ridiculous from them. The face of a respected Texas rice farmer appears on a box, some snowflakes complain about it, and the company caves in and changes the name. Why? Because having the photo of a black person on your product screams “racist!” But a photo of a white guy like Colonel Sanders is NOT racist.

    It will be fun to watch companies fall all over themselves trying to appeased the desperately offended. Let’s watch the fun.

  15. No one knows how many people were lynched in this country of any color or religion. The west lynched many people for various reasons. Discrimination happened all over this country. What about the Chinese, Catholics, Jewish, Muslims and the American Indians? The problem with stereotypes is everywhere and most people have experienced it.
    Why is it we have no compassion for them?

  16. We never looked at the pictures Aunt Jemima,Uncle Ben,Mrs.Butterworth or Alexa Hentay,in the 60s,as anything racial. Visually the picture represented,the product as good,We just knew that the it meant the product was the best,Things change,I guess people are uncomfortable but The woman who was the face of Aunt Jemima was a great lady.Perhaps pay tribute to her on the bottle with her accomplishments.Breakfast history!Remember the past to move forward.

  17. It’s wrong to try to erase or even do away with images of black American history regardless of how uncomfortable it makes white people feel. Black people don’t want to erase Aunt Jemima. Besides everyone loves Aunt Jemima so how can that be racist.?

  18. @ Janet Cristofori that was 1891….From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the US and of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. The blacks lynched accounted for 72.7% of the people lynched.

  19. Growing up I never once looked at aunt Jemima in a racist way or uncle Ben. I will say one thing no one ever gets outraged about all the stereotypes of Italians. I would like to remind people that the largest mass lynching in the US were Italians. I guess our lives don’t matter.

  20. Ironic how people like Jeff are so sensitive to political correctness, because they think people are being too sensitive…..

  21. It’s about time we honor her very own wishes not to portray a stereotype. Read the entire article so you can understand this is not political correctness at all – It’s about stopping systemic racism via images that companies have used to sell their products. Thank you Quaker for finally seeing it’s time for a change!

  22. Political correctness gone crazy. Time for a boycott of Quaker and Mars.
    This has really gotten stupid.

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