Heirs of Anna Short Harrington, The Original ‘Aunt Jemima’, File $2 billion Lawsuit Against Pepsi and Quaker Oats.

Aunt Jemima

Anna Short Harrington was born in Marlboro County, South Carolina in 1897. She served as the original “Aunt Jemima” from 1935 to 1949. Her role included appearing in print ads for the brand and attending promotional events all over the country in character. Her modest earnings allowed her to purchase a home and even rent out rooms in Syracuse, New York until her passing in 1955. The home has since been demolished to make room for Interstate 80.

Today in 2014, D.W. Hunter, the great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, has filed a class action lawsuit alleging the parent companies of the “Aunt Jemima” brand prevented Harrington and her decendants from receiving royalties associated with the character. Short’s suit names PepsiCo Inc., Quaker Oats Co., Pinnacle Foods, and Hillshire Brands Co.

According to the Chicago Tribune,

Hunter alleges that the companies conspired to deny that Harrington had been an employee of Quaker Oats, all the while exploiting her image and recipes for profit, while refusing to pay an “equitable fair share of royalties” to her heirs for more than 60 years.

The claims come on the heels of the defendants allegedly receiving a certified death certificate for Harrington that listed Quaker Oats as her employer.

Hunter further alleges that the companies have lied while claiming they could find no employment records for Harrington, or images of her, and yet they had her image deposited inside the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to the document.

According to the suit, Quaker Oats sought out Harrington’s youngest daughter Olivia Hunter in 1989, ultimately using her likeness to update the look of Aunt Jemima. It is this image that is used today on Aunt Jemima-branded products, the suit suggests.

The suit further alleges a racial element to the exploitation of Harrington and the other women who portrayed Aunt Jemima, going so far as to accuse the company of theft in procuring 64 original formulas and 22 menus from Harrington.

It further alleges that Harrington 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.

Chicago-based Quaker continued to use Harrington’s image for years, and licensed it out to other companies for ancillary merchandise like mugs and clothing, the suit alleges.

The lawsuit cites Screen Actors Guild residuals and standard policies in the entertainment industry regarding revenue statements, which neither Harrington nor her heirs ever received. It wasn’t until they uncovered in 2013 that Quaker Oats had trademarked Harrington’s likeness and picture in 1937 that the family determined that they were owed royalties.

The lawsuit alleges that Pinnacle Foods has sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Aunt Jemima products. Pinnacle sells Aunt Jemima-branded frozen pancakes, waffles and French toast. Chicago-based Hillshire dropped its bid to buy New Jersey-based Pinnacle earlier this year.

So far the entities named in the lawsuit, which was filed on August 5th, have declined to comment. It will be interesting to see how this one turns out.