If you grew up in America, chances are you knew the familiar face of Aunt Jemima, who stared up at you while you doused your pancakes in syrup. There’s now quite a bit of controversy surrounding that face.
D.W. Hunter, the great grandson of Anna Short Harrington (the woman who became “Aunt Jemima”), has filed a class action lawsuit against PepsiCo, The Quaker Oats Company, Pinnacle Foods Group, and The Hillshire Brands Company on behalf of all of her great grandchildren, reports Chicago Tribune. He’s seeking a pretty penny: $2 billion plus punitive damages.
Some backstory on the woman we’ve come to know as Aunt Jemima: Harrington took on the role of the pre-existing character in 1935. In 1937, Quaker Oats first registered the Aunt Jemima trademark for the brand. Harrington was allegedly selected because of her personal pancake recipe, which the company recreated for the mass market. Must’ve been really freaking good.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Hunter is arguing that,
According to the defendants, Quaker continued to use Harrington’s image for years, and licensed it out to other companies to use on products like mugs and clothing.
The defendants are also accusing the company of theft in procuring 64 original formulas and 22 menus from Harrington. What’s more, the suit alleges “a racial element to the exploitation of Harrington,” stating that she was “dissuaded from using a lawyer, exploiting her lack of education and age,” so that the company could not pay her a percentage of sales from her recipes.
Why file the suit now? The defendants allegedly received a death certificate for Harrington that listed Quaker Oats as her employer. Hunter says that the companies lied and claimed that they couldn’t find employment records for Harrington or images of her. Although, according to document, the companies had her image deposited inside the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
According to the suit, Quaker Oats sought out Harrington’s youngest daughter Olivia Hunter in 1989, using her appearance to update the look of Aunt Jemima. This image is used today on Aunt Jemima products.