By Erick Johnson
For nearly 100 years, a famous Black woman was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in a humble area next to a red brick wall along 67th street. Generations of visitors at the cemetery would come and go without ever knowing that Nancy Green lay in the same cemetery where so many prominent Blacks lie in elaborate mausoleums and graves with fancy headstones.
She was the original Aunt Jemima, the proud pancake maven who flipped America at breakfast tables with her products. An icon in life, Green was a nobody in death. While marble columns and elegant obelisks sat on the graves of Chicago’s esteemed Black achievers, for 97 years, the only thing that sat on Green’s grave was a patch of grass.
For nearly a century the final resting place of an important figure in Black history resembled a pauper’s grave that was fit for the forgotten.
On Friday, May 16, the Crusader learned that Green’s decades of obscurity will finally come to an end. After a long battle, Green will have a fitting memorial placed on her grave. Hundreds of yards from the graves of the Staple Singers, Mayor Harold Washington, journalist Ida B. Wells and four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, Green’s name and legacy will shine once again.
She was born a slave, but by the time she died in 1923, Green established herself as Aunt Jemima, one of America’s most famous commercial brands that brought her fame and criticism for portraying Blacks based on negative stereotypes. With a fledging pancake empire, her gregarious personality and image would win over many fans as her face helped Quaker Oats sell millions of pancake mixes and syrup bottles.
Five years ago, the Crusader published a story about Green’s grave, which is located in Section R3 Lot 291 at Oak Woods. It’s one of the oldest parts of the cemetery where burials go backs as far as the early 1900s.
At the time Sherrie Williams, president and founder of the Bronzeville Historical Society, was 10 years into a battle to put a marker on Green’s grave. That effort seemed impossible to achieve because of Illinois’ strict laws governing the practice of installing headstones on graves in cemeteries. For that to happen, the approval of a descendant or relative is needed.
Ninety years after the pancake lady died, Williams somehow had to track down her descendants. It was a long journey, but like Aunt Jemima’s batter, she rose to the top. Now Williams is ready to flip as she makes plans for a special ceremony to give Green a fitting marker that has been long overdue.
“It’s by the grace of God that everything finally came together,” Williams told the Crusader.
Many people were not alive when Green parlayed a simple recipe into a pancake empire at a time when there were few opportunities for Blacks.
Born into slavery on March 4, 1834 in Montgomery County, Kentucky, Green’s birth ironically came exactly three years before Chicago was founded on March 4, 1837.
Green moved to Chicago in 1865 to work as a maid and cook for the prominent Walker family, whose children grew up to be the late Chicago Judge Charles M. Walker and Dr. Samuel Walker, a wealthy doctor who lived on the North Side, according to an old article in the Chicago Defender.
Because of her fine homemade cooking and affable personality, Green was referred to Chris Rutt and Charles Underwood. They were two businessmen who bought the Pearl Milling Company to sell ready-mixed and self-rising pancakes.
After watching a vaudeville show that featured a character named Aunt Jemima, the men hired Green to help sell their product. Green was given a booth at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Jackson Park. According to reports, Green would help sell 50,000 orders for Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix.
News reports said that Green was such a crowd pleaser that a special policeman was hired to keep the lines moving. She was crowned the “Pancake Queen” and given a lifetime contract with the R.T. Davis Milling Company, which was purchased by the Quaker Oats Company several years after Green died in 1923.
It’s uncertain how much wealth, if any, Green amassed as the official face of Aunt Jemima. In 2014, several Black women who later portrayed Aunt Jemima filed a lawsuit, claiming a share of an estimated $2 billion fortune and a portion of future product sales. Quaker Oats has said the Aunt Jemima character was never real.
Green lived in the neighborhood that is known today as Bronzeville. At 89, she died on August 30, 1923 when she was struck by a car while walking near 46th street. The driver of the car was a doctor who said he was trying to avoid colliding with a truck.
Green’s funeral was held at Bronzeville’s historic Olivet Baptist Church, of which she was a founding member. Her great nephew, Luroy Hayes, was documented in cemetery records as the relative who arranged and approved her burial. No marker was ever placed on Green’s grave after her burial, cemetery officials said.
More than 90 years later, Williams was left with the difficult task of locating Green’s descendants to get the headstone approved.
Williams’ investigation began when she learned important details through Ancestry.com research. Records show that Luroy Hayes, Sr. died in 1937 and is buried in Mount Glenwood Memory Gardens South in Glenwood, where the Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam is buried.
A historian, Williams continued to follow the online family history records. She reached out to the Riverside Veterans Cemetery in Los Angeles to inquire about Luroy Hayes, Jr. (1915-1983). The cemetery confirmed his burial. Using the white pages telephone directory, Williams found the names of Hayes’ descendants.
One of them was Donald Hayes, a great great grandson of Luroy Hayes. Donald Hayes died in 1975, but Williams wrote a letter to the last known address listed in the White Pages directory. She received a call from his aging widow, Jereline Hayes. After five years of emails and phone calls to Oak Woods Cemetery, in 2015 Jereline handed the matter over to the fifth generation descendant of Nancy Green, Marcus Hayes.
Marcus, the great great great grandson of Luroy Hayes lives in Huntsville, Alabama. Last week, he signed an affidavit of heirship that was accepted as proof of his family lineage.
Williams said the entire task took 15 years.
After growing frustrated in getting Oak Woods Cemetery officials to speed things up, Williams says she got help from a resident who successfully placed markers on the graves of former members of the Negro Baseball League who are buried at Oak Woods.
The person referred Williams to Pathia Reese, a counselor at Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Blue Island. She helped expedite Williams’ efforts last July after Williams learned that a group of volunteers organized an effort to put a headstone on the grave of Eugene Williams, the teenager who was killed in the Chicago Race Riot in the summer of July 1919.
Historically, Oak Woods was once known as a segregated cemetery that did not allow Blacks to be buried there. It’s uncertain how Green and journalist Ida B. Wells and other Blacks were buried there during Jim Crow. In the 1960s, funeral home founder A.R. Leak led a protest to desegregate Oak Woods after the cemetery refused to cremate the body of a Black person.
Because Green is buried in a section with flat headstones, Williams plans to have a similar, but ornate one created to reflect Green’s achievement as the original Aunt Jemima.
Williams plans to fly in Marcus Hayes and Green’s other living descendants once the coronavirus pandemic has abated. Williams has set up a Facebook page to raise money for the headstone.
Anyone wishing to donate money for the headstone can go to the Bronzeville Historical Society Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/donate/263496605064624/.