From Servant to Superstar: Unveiling the Extraordinary Journey of Nancy Green, the First-Ever Influencer

Incredible (and tremendously racist)

From Servant to Superstar: Unveiling the Extraordinary Journey of Nancy Green, the First-Ever Influencer
Randy Meeks

Randy Meeks

We live in a world of influencers: the word entered our lives a few years ago and has stuck with us ever since. Fashion influencers, film influencers, micro-influencers… Right now, ads featuring people who seem real are effective, and marketing agencies are well aware of this. But this is not new, nor is it a recent phenomenon: Do you not remember celebrities putting their face to advertise all sorts of products? Well, it started even before television.


The original influencer

There was a pioneer among all these anonymous people who ended up embodying a product: the proto-influencer, the first person who decided to be a kind of “mascot” for a product, was Nancy Green, who would ultimately become the first face that would simultaneously be a brand. Now it seems like everyday life, but in 1893 it was not so common. And beware, because the story is full of racism, plot twists, and sadness: hard to believe.

Nancy Hayes was born in 1834 as a slave on a farm in Kentucky, at a time when things were starting to change but it would still be another forty years before everything exploded (literally). During her childhood, she cultivated tobacco and took care of the Walker family’s livestock, who later used her as a servant, cook, and housekeeper. She got married, had four children, which was normal for the time. And then the Civil War came.

Nancy lost her husband and children during the war. As sad as it sounds, she ended up working as a nanny and housekeeper (no longer a slave) for the Walkers in Chicago in the early 1870s after living in a sad and lonely cabin. One of the family’s sons became a judge and, almost out of the blue, brought a twist to her life when a pancake and breakfast product brand that was born in 1889 asked him if he knew someone for the role of a character named Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jimema

Aunt Jemima was founded purely by chance: Chris L. Rutt and his friend Charles G. Underwood purchased a flour mill in Missouri and, facing an oversaturated market at that time, they sold the excess in small bags for making pancakes. They were the pioneers and succeeded like no one else. “Aunt Jemima” was actually a name they came across outside a vaudeville show and decided to appropriate. But, of course, they needed a face. Who could it be?

Nancy Green was 59 years old and had dressed again as a slave for the purpose of marketing. In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, our protagonist sang songs, told made-up stories about racial equality and the joy of everyone during slavery in the South, and served breakfast using Aunt Jemima’s prepared mix. The exhibition’s advertising featured the phrase “I’se in town, honey!”, which was a racist way of imitating the speech of slaves.

Immediately after the fair, the owners of Aunt Jemima offered her a lifetime contract to portray the character. However, it is more likely that what they wanted was the rights to caricature her rather than her as a person. She traveled throughout the United States for years until, at the age of 66 in 1900, she refused to cross the Atlantic to attend the Paris Exposition and was replaced by another African American woman, indicating that they cared more about the character itself than about her.

Slavery stories

To give you an idea of what it was like, Aunt Jemima was presented as a loyal cook on a Mississippi colonel’s plantation, and stories were invented about her flavor (“The recipe is from the South, from before the Civil War”), with nostalgia for the days of slavery. Another story claimed that she had revived a group of shipwreck survivors with her food. Merchandising with her face was widespread, including cut-out dolls from the product box and clothing for those dolls.

Aunt Jemima soon had a family: Uncle Rastus (later renamed “Uncle Mose”) and four children, in whose design Green had no say. The influencer, who helped put the brand on the map, continued working with the Walkers as if her face wasn’t in every supermarket until she passed away at the age of 89 in a house in Chicago with her nieces and nephews. By that time, Aunt Jemima was launching rag dolls of her character with oversized mouths, missing teeth, and torn pants.

The story of the “happy slave” was very common among brands created by white men after the Civil War, although it added even more pain to the racism in the United States. The last actress to portray Aunt Jemima did so in 1964 at Disneyland. She was even friends with Walt Disney! In 2020, the brand removed the racist caricature from its packaging, and in 2021 it was announced that its new name would be Pearl Milling Company, the original company that was founded in that flour mill. It took them nearly 150 years to realize that a narrative based on slavery only reopened wounds. How things change.

Randy Meeks

Randy Meeks

Editor specializing in pop culture who writes for websites, magazines, books, social networks, scripts, notebooks and napkins if there are no other places to write for you.

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