By Erick Johnson
She was buried in obscurity without a headstone in Oak Woods Cemetery nearly 100 years ago after serving as the original Aunt Jemima archetype. On September 5, Nancy Green finally got the recognition in death, as she earned in death, with a glowing headstone and a special ceremony.
A row of cars lined both sides of a small road on the east side of the cemetery, where a white tent was erected next to Green’s grave.
Under sunny skies, about two dozen people celebrated the dedication of a glistening granite headstone etched with a regal image of America’s pancake maven. This was done to the sounds of African drums, which ended 97 years of obscurity that dishonored the legacy of achievements of a Black woman whose image graced millions of syrup bottles and pancake mixes in America’s kitchens.
Led by Sherry Williams, president of the Bronzeville Historical Society, the ceremony was a tribute to Green’s legacy and a celebration of her contributions to Black history. Pastor John Smith, of the historic Olivet Baptist Church in Bronzeville where Green was a founding member, knelt, bowed his head, and touched Green’s new marker. Smith led a special prayer before a libation ceremony took place at Green’s grave.
Peggy Montes of the Bronzeville Children’s Museum also attended and spoke. “This is our history, and if we don’t preserve it, nobody else will,” Montes said. “We all need to be thankful for today, be out here to be able to remember our ancestors who have gone before us.”
It was a ceremony that finally completed a burial that for decades was a mystery to those who knew Green and knew about her trailblazing career. She was born a slave on March 4, 1834 and died as a pioneer on August 23, 1923. But in death, Green was a nobody.
For decades, her legacy and contributions to Black history faded as generations of visitors passed by her unmarked grave without knowing that she was buried there. And with Quaker Oats’ decision to eliminate the Aunt Jemima’s brand because of today’s racial climate, there were concerns that Green’s legacy would be lost forever.
Those concerns were buried on Saturday as visitors flocked to Green’s newly marked grave next to a tree and near a red brick wall along 67th Street in Oak Woods Cemetery. Her granite marker stands out among the aged markers in one of the oldest sections in the cemetery where many graves contain burials between 1919 and 1923.
The new marker includes a fresh, elegant image of Green when she was young and wearing an African headwrap. Under her name, “The original Aunt Jemima,” is written on the grave. Next to the epitaph is an image of a stack of pancakes.
The image of Green on the marker is different from those in old newspapers where fans say that image was created by white businessmen who portrayed her as a minstrel figure that promoted racial stereotypes.
Williams said she found the fresh image from the Sacramento Bee in California and several old newspapers as she worked on design plans for Green’s marker.
“Her humanity needs to be celebrated,” Williams said during the ceremony. “The images that you’ve seen over the years, none of them were representative of her.”
During the dedication ceremony, a box of Aunt Jemima pancakes sat next to the grave, along with an African drum and two plants whose bases were wrapped with red handkerchiefs, a nod to Aunt Jemima’s iconic appearance.
Thomasina Hawkins from Hyde Park laid a bouquet of flowers during a ceremony led by historian Williams, who led a long effort to place a marker on Green’s grave.
“I feel that she was a strong woman, and she did a lot of things for the community,” Hawkins said. “I don’t want her name to be scooped under dirt as if she wasn’t real.”
Hawkins said she will help get an honorary street sign to honor Green’s legacy.
Williams said there were plans for Green’s descendants, including Marcus Hayes, to attend the ceremony, but he and the Hayes’ family were unable to do so because of the coronavirus pandemic. Williams said the ceremony was carried on Zoom and Facebook Live. She went on to say they will receive a smaller replica of the Green’s new marker.
The marker cost a total of $5,000, which included labor costs for the design of Green’s image, Williams said. Funds from a fundraising campaign covered the costs of the marker.
The dedication ceremony ended Williams’ battle to place a marker on Green’s grave. In 2015, the Crusader became the first news outlet to publish the first of several articles on the story before the New York Times and ABC News reported on Green’s forgotten legacy.
She was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky. Ironically, Green’s birth came exactly three years before Chicago was founded on March 4, 1837.
Green moved to Chicago in 1865 to work as a maid and cook for the prominent Walker family, whose children grew up to be the late Chicago Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker, a wealthy doctor who lived on the North Side, according to an old article in the Chicago Defender.
Because of her fine homemade cooking and affable personality, Green was referred to Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood. They were two businessmen who bought the Pearl Milling Company to sell ready-mixed and self-rising pancakes.
After watching a vaudeville show that featured a character named Aunt Jemima, the men hired Green to help sell their product. She was given a booth at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Jackson Park. Green would help sell 50,000 orders for Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix according to reports.
News reports said that Green was such a crowd pleaser that a special policeman was hired to keep the lines moving. She was crowned the “Pancake Queen” and given a lifetime contract with the R.T. Davis Milling Company, which was purchased by the Quaker Oats Company several years after Green died in 1923.
At the time of her burial at Oak Woods Cemetery, she was one of few Blacks who were buried there. Today, Mayor Harold Washington, members of the Staple Singers, Olympic champion Jesse Owens, and Ebony and Jet magazine founder John H. Johnson are among numerous prominent Blacks who are buried at Oak Woods Cemetery.