Nancy Green was standing under the South Side El on East 46th Street in Chicago one Thursday in 1923 when she was struck and killed by a car that had collided with a laundry truck and careered onto the sidewalk where she was standing.
Not until the next Monday, though, when Joseph Gubbins, Cook County’s deputy coroner, was conducting an inquest into the accident, was Green identified by her alter ego.
Her death became front page news across the nation (though not in The New York Times) — and for good reason. For two decades she had generated headlines — also on front pages — while on tour as one of America’s most enduring living trademarks: Aunt Jemima.
“I’se in town, honey,” billboards and buttons featuring her likeness proclaimed.
At stops along the way Green would flip flapjacks in a flour barrel-shaped pavilion 16 feet in diameter while singing spirituals and other obligatory tunes and waxing rhapsodic about antebellum plantation servitude under benevolent white masters.
She had been recruited in 1890 as the original incarnation of Aunt Jemima and played the part into the first decade of the 20th century, most famously at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892.
Aunt Jemima, the character, would outlast Green for another 97 years on labels and boxes until last month, when Quaker Oats, which bought the brand in 1926 and which was acquired by PepsiCo in 2001, announced her retirement, acknowledging that she had been “based on a racial stereotype.”
The image on pancake boxes and syrup dispensers was originally inspired by “Old Aunt Jemima,” a song written in 1875 by Billy Kersands, a Black comedian, and performed, often by white men, in minstrel shows. In 1889, inspired by one such performance, Chris Rutt, a former newspaper reporter, and Charles Underwood, his partner in a milling company, which they had bought that year, branded their self-rising pancake flour with the Aunt Jemima name.
Better at promotion than profit-making, the partners sold their failing company to the R.T. Davis Mill Co. of St. Joseph, Missouri. Davis promptly solicited his salesmen to find a real-life Aunt Jemima.
It was Charles C. Jackson, a food wholesaler, who discovered Green, in 1890. She was a cook for the family of Charles M. Walker Jr., who would become a Chicago alderman, corporation counsel and judge.
Most biographies say that Green was born into slavery on March 4, 1834, in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, in Montgomery County, east of Lexington, although the 1900 census lists her year of birth as 1854. (Official birth certificates for slaves were rarely filed.) She won her freedom and was hired as a nanny and housekeeper by Walker’s father, who transplanted the family to Chicago.
Green helped care for Walker’s sons, Charles and Samuel, and her pancakes were said to be popular among the family’s friends.
As Aunt Jemima, she proved to be a promotional bonanza for R.T. Davis at the Columbian Exposition, which included an exhibit of a miniature West African village whose natives were portrayed as savages.
The Aunt Jemima mythology transported Green to a tiny cabin in Louisiana, where she was the loyal cook for a Col. Higbee, a plantation owner on the Mississippi. When Union soldiers during the Civil War threatened to rip off his mustache, the story went, she diverted them with her pancakes long enough for the colonel to escape. The troops were so smitten that they urged her to come north and share her recipe.
This backstory was created by James Webb Young, an advertising executive, and illustrator N.C. Wyeth (the father of artist Andrew Wyeth). In promotional material, Aunt Jemima was called “the cook whose cabin became more famous than Uncle Tom’s.”
“Those who knew her best,” it went on, “who knew her even from the time when she first came up from her little cabin home, they found her still the simple, earnest smiling mammy — it was all the same to her.”
In reality, “this Aunt Jemima logo was an outgrowth of Old South plantation nostalgia and romance,” Riché Richardson, an associate professor in the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, wrote in The New York Times in 2015. It was an image, she said, “grounded in an idea about the ‘mammy,’ a devoted and submissive servant who eagerly nurtured the children of her white master and mistress while neglecting her own.”
Green was said to have received a lifetime contract and made a fortune, but it’s more likely that she simply worked for the company (she described herself in the 1910 census as a “housekeeper”) while serving as a missionary for the historic Olivet Baptist Church in Chicago.
In 1900, after 30 years of marriage, she was widowed. Green died from her injuries in the car accident on Aug. 30, 1923, having outlived her two children. She was believed to be 89. She was living with a great-nephew and his wife at the time.
Green was buried in an unmarked grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Chicago. That same year, the United Daughters of the Confederacy nearly succeeded in erecting a monument to “faithful colored mammies.” Legislation was approved by the U.S. Senate but did not make it past the House.
For 15 years, Sherry Williams, president of The Bronzeville Historical Society, which preserves African American culture in Chicago, searched for a descendant of Green to grant permission to place a headstone at her gravesite.
This year, she reached a great-great-great nephew, Marcus Hayes, of Huntsville, Alabama, who heartily agreed. Hayes, who is studying to become a pastor at Oakwood University, which is affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in a phone interview that Green had used her prominence to promote equality and would be disappointed that others had profited from her talent while her family received no recognition or compensation.
“She would want the real story to be told of her and the ladies that came after her,” Hayes said. “Aunt Jemima is more than a character. She is Nancy Green, and this is her recipe, and her legacy must be told.”
Williams said she hoped to hold a ceremony for Green at the cemetery this year. She also made the case not to forget the Aunt Jemima image.
“History does not simply disappear when you remove the Aunt Jemima image and brand name,” Williams wrote.
“Aunt Jemima is representative of the countless Black women who were and are the essential workers,” she added. “Nancy Green in particular is the ideal woman to salute.”