DailyBeast reports earlier this month, when Quaker Oats announced that Aunt Jemima would get a new name and logo, a 47-year-old truck driver named Larnell Evans, Jr. received the news with some ambivalence. Evans is the great-great-grandson of Anna Short Harrington, one of several actresses who played Aunt Jemima at fairs and in advertisements throughout the early 20th century. The company’s rebrand and future $5 million donation rang hollow to him. “That’s the easy way for them to go,” Evans tells The Daily Beast. “I guess you would say, that’s saving money.”
He had a different reckoning in mind. Six years ago, Evans and his nephew, Dannez Hunter, tried to confront Quaker Oats about their shared history in federal court. In September of 2014, they filed a federal lawsuit against PepsiCo, the corporate owner of Quaker Oats, alleging that Harrington had helped develop Aunt Jemima’s signature self-rising pancake mix, and that the company had used her likeness as its logo without providing proper compensation. They asked for $2 billion in relief and a share of sales revenue.
“In Aunt Jemima, [Quaker Oats] still possesses one of the most recognizable and thus valuable trademarks in history,” the complaint read. “Defendants actions epitomise what is the worst in corporate America, exemplifying the worst business practices anywhere on the planet.” (Quaker Oats did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The legal saga spanned five years of filings, but collapsed after a Chicago judge dismissed the case, and later barred Hunter from further filings without court approval. The loss hinged less on the content of their case, however, than its presentation.
Throughout the dispute, Hunter and Evans represented themselves without an attorney. Hunter drafted the motions; Evans proofread. “Law was always a very interesting topic for both of us,” Evans said. “But we wish we’d hired a lawyer, because they didn’t take the case seriously.”
While the documents often reflected a firm grasp of legal convention, Hunter at times slipped into first person or implied larger conspiracies (none too different from actualmaliciousactions the American government carried out against Black people).
Still, the documents’ idiosyncrasies elicited snark from judicial authorities. “At over 50,000 words, Hunter’s complaint is longer than both The Great Gatsby and the King James Bible’s version of the Book of Genesis,” the dismissal of a subsequent filing in Minnesota reads. “The overlong complaint meanders across a vast landscape pocked by conspiracy. Portions of the complaint are written in what appears to be Chinese.”
A good deal of the original complaint, however, bears out in contemporaneous reports about Harrington’s life and work. Born in 1897, Anna Short Harrington grew up in Marlboro County, South Carolina, and worked as a sharecropper on a cotton and tobacco plantation for several years.
In the 1920s, according to a Nov. 12, 1995 newswire article syndicated across the country, Harrington moved to Syracuse, New York, where she worked for several college fraternities. A skilled cook, Harrington earned a reputation at the frats for her pancakes, which soon spread around campus and into the city.
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