While the Aunt Jemima breakfast brand likely conjures images of cottony pancakes and cloying syrup, the name Anna Short Harrington probably doesn’t ring any bells.
But a new lawsuit centered around Harrington -- who was hired to portray Aunt Jemima after the brand’s acquisition by Quaker Oats in 1926 -- alleges that her heirs never received any royalties from the earnings generated by her likeness and original recipes following her death in 1955.
Harrington’s great-grandson, D.W. Hunter, filed a $2 billion class action suit -- on behalf of all of Harrington’s heirs -- against PepsiCo and its Quaker Oats subsidiary in an Illinois district court last week.
He alleges that Quaker Oats denied that Harrington had been an employee in the wake of her death so as to avoid paying the family royalties, reports the Chicago Tribune.
The suit also names Pinnacle Foods, which licenses the Aunt Jemima brand for frozen foods, as well as Hillshire Brands, which previously sought to purchase Pinnacle.
It was only after receiving her death certificate, which listed Quaker Oats as Harrington’s employer, that Hunter determined that he and his fellow great-grandchildren were rightfully owed a portion of the billions that the company raked in, according to the suit.
While the origins of the Aunt Jemima character are said to have derived from a minstrel show (Harrington was the second woman to personify the role), the suit also “alleges a racial element to the exploitation,” reports the Tribune.
Hunter claims that Quaker Oats exploited Harrington’s “lack of education and age” by discouraging her from hiring a lawyer to negotiate her compensation contract. In addition to stealing 64 original formulas and 22 menus from Harrington, reports the Tribune, Quaker has also licensed out her image for merchandise like mugs and clothing.
Quaker, for its part, denies the claims. “People associate The Aunt Jemima Brand with warmth, hospitality and comfort,” the company said in a statement. “We stand by this heritage as well as the ways in which we do business.”