by Jennifer Houston
Why We Should Care: Born into slavery, Nancy Green achieved fame and fortune as one of the USA’s first African-American corporate models. As the face of Aunt Jemima, Nancy made a sensation of the new pancake mix at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where she cooked and greeted visitors. Winning crowds over with her warm nature and captivating storytelling, Nancy secured the fledgling product over 50,000 orders, and snagged herself a lifetime contract as the exclusive portrayer of the Aunt Jemima character. True to her nurturing image, she used her newfound wealth to champion against poverty.
How She’s (Not) Celebrated: After Green’s death in 1923, the character was portrayed by a string of women throughout the next six decades. In 1989, the original image of a wide-smiled heavyset woman in a kerchief (slammed by the NAACP as a lingering reminder of the dispelled “mammy” archetype) was trashed for a younger and thinner representation, kerchief-less and clad in pearl earrings and a lace collar. Though the brand may have ditched her image, criticized as reinforcing a servile attitude towards black women, Nancy is still recognized as an important part of African-American history.
Three Traits We Admire: Her dedication to helping the poor, butter-melting smile, and lasting impression on American advertising.