Descendants and heirs of women who were reportedly the inspiration and faces of the Aunt Jemima pancake mixes and syrups over the years are suing Quaker Oats, the current owner of the brand, saying they deserve $2 billion and a share in any future money made from sales of the breakfast brand.
Two great-grandsons of Anna Short Harrington, who the lawsuit says was recruited in 1935 to represent the brand, filed a federal suit in Chicago recently, saying she and another woman named Nancy Green were a vital part of the first-ever self-rising pancake mix recipe, reports USA Today.
As such, she and other women (including three of Harrington's daughters who were also reportedly photographed or appeared as Aunt Jemima) deserve compensation the families claimed they were promised from the start.
"Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history," said one of Harrington's great-grandsons in the suit.
However, Quaker Oats has taken the stance in response that Aunt Jemima wasn't a real person.
"The image symbolizes a sense of caring, warmth, hospitality and comfort and is neither based on, nor meant to depict any one person," according to a statement from Quaker Oats, a subsidiary of PepsiCo. "While we cannot discuss the details of pending litigation, we do not believe there is any merit to this lawsuit."
Pepsico adds that there are no contracts that have been found between the women who appeared as Aunt Jemima in ads and on packaging, saying last March in an email cited in the lawsuit:
"PepsiCo and Quaker are actively searching for contracts that would pertain to Ms. Anna S. Harrington, which if they exist go back 60 years or even longer. We thus far have not located these documents in the places that have been searched," PepsiCo lawyer Dean Panos wrote in a March e-mail cited in the lawsuit.
But the women's descendants say that the contracts were real.
Quaker Oats and others "made false promises to Nancy Green … and Anna Harrington," their lawsuit says, saying that when their "name, voice or likeness was used in connection with the products or goods, (the ladies) would receive a percentage of the monies or royalties received."
Neither woman was in the position to bargain fairly with the pancake bosses, the suit says.
"Defendants were in position to exploit Nancy Green, and Anna Harrington, that came from plantations," the lawsuit said. Green was born a slave on a farm in Kentucky around 1834 and first appeared as Aunt Jemima in 1893, while Harrington was the daughter of sharecroppers who worked on a plantation.
It could be a tough argument to make, one lawyer familiar with trademarks but not involved with the case told USA Today, due to the amount of time it's taken to dispute any potential contracts.
"This happened so long ago and continued for so long with nobody doing anything about it," he said, noting that legal standards for misleading someone in a contract have a statute of limitations that probably expired long ago. And it won't matter that the women weren't prepared to deal with such things, he says.
"If a person doesn't take action within an applicable period of time, their claim goes away," he explains.
Pancake flap: 'Aunt Jemima' heirs seek dough [USA Today]