Book serves up the life of Syracuse's 'Aunt Jemima'

November 03, 2002

Dick Case, Post Standard Columnist

Every once in a while, a sliver of Syracuse history pops up to surprise us.

We have one this week, thanks to John Troy McQueen of Bennettsville, S.C.

John's a retired educator who writes freelance. He's just finished a modest book about Anna Short Harrington, who died in Syracuse in 1955 at the age of 58.

She grew up in Bennettsville.

Anna was "Aunt Jemima," the real-life counterpart of the famous Quaker Oats Co. advertising image, a piece of genuine Americana, according to John.

The food company captured Anna's image and "publicized it all over America," the author writes in his book, "The Story of Aunt Jemima." He continues that "sponsors paid Mrs. Harrington good money for traveling around the nation making personal appearances as Aunt Jemima."

John traces Aunt Jemima to the 1890s, after Chris Rutt produced the first self-rising pancake flour. He says - quoting "The People's Almanac" - that the name was borrowed from a vaudeville tune, "Aunt Jemima."

When Rutt sold his flour formula to David Milling Co., one of the predecessors of Quaker Oats, the company hired a black cook, Nancy Green, to appear as Aunt Jemima at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Nancy, then 59, worked for a Chicago judge.

John says she died in a car crash in 1932. Three years later, Anna Harrington was cooking pancakes at the state fair "when she was discovered by the Quaker Oats Co." She played the part 14 years.

Nancy Green as "Aunt Jemima"

In 2001, Quaker Foods and Beverages joined the PepsiCo conglomerate. Somewhere along the line, John learned, the Quaker folks separated themselves from the Aunt Jemima biography.

"They told me they had no information about her," John said from his home in northern South Carolina last week. I heard the same reply after I called corporate headquarters in Chicago.

The writer said he got most of his information about Anna from her family in South Carolina, including her niece, Lenora Pegues. All close kin in Syracuse have either died or moved, John and I discovered.

He visited Anna's adopted hometown two years ago, located her grave in Oakwood-Morningside Cemetery and spoke to members of her church, Bethany Baptist.

The late Olivia Hunter was Anna's youngest daughter. When she died in Syracuse in 1991, Olivia's daughter, Liz Hunter, told newspaper writer Anne Roth about her grandmother:

"A white family in Nedrow brought (Anna) from South Carolina as a maid in 1927. The lady always promised her she would take her back to South Carolina for her children. In 1928, they drove south in a Model-A Ford and returned with my grandmother's five children."

Besides Olivia, they were Laura Patterson and Delores Hoffman, and Levi and Daniel Harrington. Their father was Weldon Harrington, who apparently left the family circle after 10 years of marriage to Anna.

Liz Hunter explained that Anna for years cooked for fraternity houses at Syracuse University. She confirmed her grandmother's work for Quaker Oats.

The new book provides more details about her life as Aunt Jemima:

"In November 1935, Aunt Jemima's likeness appeared in an ad in Woman's Home Companion. The headline capitalized on her Southern accent and dialect ... 'Let ol Auntie sing in yo' kitchen...'

"During the 14 years Mrs. Harrington worked as Aunt Jemima, she made enough money to provide not only for her children, but also to buy a 22-room house with a bungalow behind it. She rented rooms to boarders."

The home was at 117 Monroe St., near Pioneer Homes. John says it was torn down when Interstate 81 came through the neighborhood after Anna's death.

John tells me he got interested in the Aunt Jemima-Anna Harrington connection because she was born near his home in Bennettsville "and I knew members of her family." He's also the author of a children's book, "A World Full of Monsters," now in a second printing.

Anna's buried on a single lot in the Morningside half of the cemetery, along Comstock Avenue on the hillside that looks toward Manley Field House. The bronze marker carries only her name and birth and death dates.

I found an additional memento in the old Morningside burial book in the cemetery office. In the column after the vital statistics is a single word in ink: "colored."

2002 The Post-Standard.

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