Gravesite of Rosa Washington Riles
Depicted Aunt Jemima in the 1950s
Rosa Washington Riles was born in 1901 in Brown County, OH. She was employed as a cook in the home of a Quaker Oats executive. Following the death of Nancy Green in 1923, the first Black woman to portray Aunt Jemima, Rosa was recruited to give food demonstrations across the US as one of the traveling women hired to portray the fictional character of Aunt Jemima.
According to food writer, Dann Woellert, "Ad entrepreneur James Webb Young, aided by celebrated illustrator N.C. Wyeth, skillfully tapped into nostalgic 1920s perceptions of the South as a culture of white leisure and black labor. Aunt Jemima’s ready-mixed products offered middle-class housewives the next best thing to a black servant: a 'slave in a box' that conjured up romantic images of not only the food but also the social hierarchy of the plantation South."
For a number of years, Rosa’s depiction of Aunt Jemima was used on the product package, first as a large portrait and later in the form of a small medallion. Washington Riles passed away in 1969 and is buried in the new section of Red Oak Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Red Oak Presbyterian Church, which owns a number of Aunt Jemima collectible items, has hosted an annual pancake breakfast in Rosa's honor, as a fundraiser for the old part of the cemetery.
Details of Aunt Jemima's depiction were changed and updated over the years, but calls for Quaker Foods to change the branding grew louder over the years. In 2020, the company finally acknowledged, "We recognize Aunt Jemima's origins are based on a racial stereotype. While work has been done over the years to update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful, we realize those changes are not enough."
The following year, in 2021, the company officially unveiled the new Pearl Milling Company brand, retaining the familiar red and yellow colors of Aunt Jemima.