Tyler has roses. Jacksonville has tomatoes. Noonday has onions. Hawkins has pancakes.
At least that’s according to a concurrent resolution passed by the Texas senate in 1995 that designated the town of 8,406 people as the Official Pancake Capital of Texas.
That legislation came about because of Lillian Richard, who for more than 20 years was a face of the iconic Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mixes and syrup. She was honored Saturday with a historical marker outside the Fouke Community Center on Farm-to-Market Road 2689.
At age 19, she moved to Dallas and became a cook for the next 15 years, according to Lou Mallory, the Wood County Historical Commission chairwoman who researched Ms. Richard’s life for the marker application.
In 1925, she began working for the Quaker Oats Company, which purchased Aunt Jemima Mills and the brand in 1926.
It was then that the company chose Ms. Richard to play the Aunt Jemima character.
“Lillian was chosen as one of the women the company hired to wear a costume with a checkered blouse, have a handkerchief and wear a cap as the portrayal of ‘Aunt Jemima’,” Mrs. Mallory’s research reads. “Her job description called for her to travel to various locations and give demonstrations of how to use the pancake mix that she promoted.”
Jewel McCalla, Ms. Richard’s niece, said she remembers seeing her aunt give a demonstration in Mineola when she was a child.
She said Ms. Richard was well-liked among her family.
“They were all crazy about Lillian. Lillian this and Lillian that,” she said. “Anytime Lillian said she was coming to Hawkins, we were there waiting for her to come.”
At the Mineola demonstration, she said she remembers a crowd gathered around to see her aunt’s performance.
In 1948, a stroke forced Ms. Richard to leave her job as Aunt Jemima. She lived the rest of her life in the care of her sister, Ollie Richards, and died in 1956 at age 65, according to Ms. Mallory’s research.
Mrs. Mallory said in a phone interview it’s been in the last 20 years that Ms. Richard’s story came to be known through Ms. McCalla, a member of the Wood County Historical Commission.
“We did our pictorial history book about six years ago, brought a picture of (Ms. Richard) in the scarf,” Mrs. Mallory said.
That image stirred up some controversy in the past as civil rights groups condemned the image as exploitative.
Dr. David Pilgrim, a professor of sociology at Ferris State University in Michigan, noted that the Aunt Jemima character rose to prominence as the Quaker Oats company brand at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago.
It was there that the original Aunt Jemima actress, Nancy Green, “sang songs, cooked pancakes, and told stories about the Old South — stories that presented the South as a happy place for blacks and whites alike,” Pilgrim writes in an article about African-American caricatures. “She was a huge success.”
Pilgrim founded the Jim Crowe Museum of Racist Memorabilia in Michigan, dedicated to “using items of intolerance to teach tolerance and promote social justice,” according to its website.
“By the turn of the century, Aunt Jemima, along with the Armour meat chef, were the two commercial symbols most trusted by American housewives,” he writes. “Mammy represented wholesomeness. You can trust the mammy pitchwoman.”
In the application prepared by Mrs. Mallory for the Texas Historical Commission, she notes the controversial nature taken on by the Aunt Jemima caricature, acknowledging the concern that the caricature was used “to create, with this single image, an African-American woman and market her to the world,” she wrote.
In a phone interview, Mrs. Mallory said the idea behind the marker was to recognize Ms. Richard’s achievement in being a spokeswoman for an enduring national brand.
“We are trying to be sure (African Americans) are not being left out of our history because they were very much a part of it,” she said.
To receive a historical marker, applicants must show the significance of a site, person or event in order to “promote diversity of topics and proactively document untold stories of our state,” according to the commission’s website.
In her application to the commission, Mrs. Mallory detailed Ms. Richard’s contribution to Hawkins and Fouke.
“Lillian Richard being one of only a select number chosen by the Quaker Oats Company to represent or portray Aunt Jemima in promoting their product brought honor and recognition to her birthplace as well as distinguishing herself as a black woman who rose above others of her race and age,” she wrote.
“Wood County is fortunate to have been her birthplace and also very grateful to her niece who revived her legacy so that Lillian would not be forgotten and rightfully given a place in the history of Wood County and the State of Texas.”
For Ms. McCalla, the state’s approval of the marker is something she never expected. At 96 years old, she said she’s done and seen a lot in her life, including having a 44-year teaching career.
Her aunt’s history, she said, is something she’s glad she can share with East Texas.
“The state didn’t have to do this,” she said. “I sure am proud I’ve been able to share this part with people.”