Anna Short Harrington (1897-1955) - The Aunt Jemima story

  • 25 June 2020
  • Author: Dan McNiel
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Anna Short Harrington (1897-1955) - The Aunt Jemima story

Editor's note -  Last week it was announced that the Quaker Oats company is "retiring" its Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mixes and syrups due to pressure over the racial stereotype presented by the packaging.  The Aunt Jemima line has a connection with Marlboro County, as one of the ladies hired to portray the fictional cook was Anna Short Harrington, a native of the Wallace area.  
Aliyah Perkins, who is the great-great niece of Harrington, contacted the Herald-Advocate, regarding her relative's place in history.
"We don't want the company to take the Aunt Jemima name away," Perkins said in regards to her family's feelings on the decision to re-brand the product line.  "It is like they are erasing her from history."
The following is an article by local historian John Troy McQueen about Anna Short Harrington.  It originally appeared in the December 25, 2014 edition of the Herald-Advocate.

by John Troy McQueen
Anna Short Harrington was born January 30, 1897, to parents Daniel and Lila Short. There were six daughters and five sons. They were sharecroppers on the Cladius Pegues plantation, in what is now known as the Wallace community (named for Senator Paul Wallace).
According to her last surviving sibling, Lila Davis, who died in the 1990s,  “the family moved into North Carolina, near Rockingham, when Anna was 12. They spent the next fourteen years on the Will Everett farm below Everett Mill. During that time, the children attended school two miles away, across the state line in South Carolina, at a small school which was church sponsored. They walked the two miles to school, which was in session from November to March or April.
“Anna Short dropped out of school before she reached the seventh grade,” said her sister. “In 1921, she married Weldon Harrington. They had five children; three daughters, Laura, Delores, and Olivia; and two sons, Levi and Daniel. Then, Harrington got into some trouble and left her. He stabbed a man in a gambling episode.”
Faced with the necessity to support her five children, Anna Short Harrington moved north in 1932. She settled in Syracuse, NY. Anna showed courage and determination to make a better life for her children. “She did everything - sewing and cooking to provide for them.”
Her fame was launched at a fairground in the Syracuse area in 1935. She was cooking pancakes there when she was discovered by the Quaker Oats Company, her picture drawn, and her image publicized as “Aunt Jemima.”
She was not the first “Aunt Jemima.” The People’s Almanac states:  “Newspaperman Chris L. Rutt produced the first self-rising pancake mix in 1889, in St. Joseph, Missouri. David Milling Company hired a black cook, Nancy Green, to appear as “Aunt Jemima” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She died in 1932, at 89, in a car accident.
Mrs. Harrington was paid good money for traveling around the nation, making personal appearances as Aunt Jemima.
In November 1935, “Aunt Jemima’s” likeness appeared in an ad in Women’s Home Companion. The headline capitalized on her Southern accent: “Let ol Auntie sing a song in yo’ kitchen.”  It went on: “make mealtime an adventure with Aunt Jemima’s magic ham ‘n’ waffles, Southern style.”
A coupon offered free (with one box top), “Aunt Jemima’s Album of Secret Recipes,” containing 64 of her recipes and 22 complete menus.
In a Syracuse, New York newspaper article in May 1975, the public was informed that “Aunt Jemima’s former employers were a string of Governors of Virginia who enjoyed her Southern cooking as much as their northern counterpart, Thomas Dewey, later did.” In the summer, she spent much of her time filling the stomachs of Senator Taft and his family.
The article continues, apparently referring to her having worked as cook for a university fraternity house. “Aunt Jemima worked at the Sammy House for two years and one of her toughest chores, she said, was feeding basketball player, Eddie Miller. One morning he ate no less than three dozens of her hot buns. After that encounter, she stopped counting and kept cooking.”
During the 14 years that Mrs. Harrington worked as Aunt Jemima, she made enough money to, not only provide for her children, but also to buy a 22-room house with a bungalow behind it. She rented rooms to boarders.
Her sister, Lila Davis visited her famous sister by train five times in Syracuse. She was taken into Canada twice while visiting.
The day before her death, October 21, 1955, one of her brothers arrived in Syracuse driving a truck. He spent the night at her house. She gave him her own bedroom and she slept in the “showcase room.”
When she did not appear for breakfast, the brother went to look for her. She was dead at age 58, having seemingly passed away in her sleep.
Lila Davis was reached by phone through the Pegues Plantation. She took the long trip to Syracuse by bus to attend the funeral.
Relatives of Mrs. Harrington that still live in Marlboro County include: niece, Lee Nora Pegues, Lila Bennett, and Mildred Foster; nephew, Adam Harrington; and cousin, William Morris Harrington.
Anna Short Harrington (also called Ann), was buried in Oakwood Morningside Cemetery, Lot 63/section H-4 in Syracuse, New York.

Since publication of this article, most of Anna Short Harrington's relatives that are mentioned have deceased.
Unintentionally omitted from this original article was Bessie Short Savannah, the sister of "Aunt Jemima".  Her son, Melvin Short Sr. was the father of Diane Short Perkins and Melvin Short Jr., who both still reside in the Wallace area.  Also residing in Wallace is Katie Short, Melvin Short Sr.'s widow.

Bennettsville native John Troy McQueen was an educator, freelance writer, and published author of eight books.  He passed away in 2015, not long after this article appeared  in the Herald-Advocate.
One of Mr. McQueen's books was titled "The Story of Aunt Jemima."

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