The heirs of the South Carolina woman who has been the face of the Aunt Jemima food brand since the 1930s, have filed a lawsuit against Pepsi, the Quaker Oats Company and two other major companies, claiming the companies owe her family $2 billion in royalties.
While Aunt Jemima brand products have featured an image of an African-American woman on their labels since the 1800s, it was not until 1935 that a real person became the model behind the image that has long been criticized as racist.
Anna Short Harrington was selected to be the face of the brand based on her original pancake recipe that was later mass produced and sold in grocery stores. Her image was then used on Aunt Jemima products for years to come.
Her image was also licensed out to other major companies.
Now Harrington’s great-grandson, D.W. Hunter, says the family has been ripped off.
According to The Wrap, the lawsuit, filed on Aug. 5 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, names PepsiCo, The Quaker Oats Company, Pinnacle Foods Group and The Hillshire Brands Company in the lawsuit and claims they all had a part in scamming the family.
In addition for $2 billion in restitution, Hunter is seeking additional punitive damages for all the Harrington’s heirs.
The lawsuit claims that the companies worked together to conceal information indicating that Harrington was an employee of Quaker Oats.
Harrington’s family has not received royalties, even though the companies continued using her image on their products for more than 60 years, according to the lawsuit.
Hunter accused the companies of lying about whether or not they had employment records for Harrington or any images of her.
The defendants received an official death certificate for Harrington that listed Quaker Oats as her employer. The lawsuit also alleges that her image was filed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Today’s Aunt Jemima brand logo is made in the likeness of Harrington’s youngest daughter.
The companies sought out Olivia Hunter in 1989, and used her image to update the logo that is still being used today.
In addition to allegedly cheating the family out of royalties, the lawsuit claims there was an element of racial prejudice involved with the business dealings.
Hunter said he believes the companies convinced Harrington that she did not need to hire a lawyer so they could easily manipulate business dealings and avoid paying her for a percentage of sales from her recipes.
The lawsuit says that Harrington was not every well educated and the companies sought to exploit her.
The family’s lawsuit could possible hit a snag, however, as there has been no mention of a legally binding contract that promised Harrington royalties or compensation for her recipes.
According to Hunter, that still shouldn’t matter.
He cited the Screen Actors Guild residuals and standard policies for the entertainment industry, and suggested that Pepsi, Quaker Oats, Pinnacles Foods Group and The Hillshire Brands Company should abide by the same regulations.
Quaker Oats has since released a statement about the lawsuit saying it “could not discuss the details of pending litigation” but it do not believe the legal action would hold up in court.