The Quaker Oats Company hired Harrington to travel nationwide portraying “Aunt Jemima” and ultimately made her a national celebrity.
Portrayer of “Aunt Jemima.” Harrington was born near Cheraw, one of ten children born to Daniel and Lelia Short on the plantation of Frank Brooks Pegues. When she was nine, her family moved to Richmond County, North Carolina, where they raised wheat and made their own flour. The Short family worked in Richmond County for approximately fourteen years chopping cotton, hoeing, plowing, cleaning ditch banks, and cooking. As the children came of age, they all left home and went their separate ways.
Anna Short married Weldon Harrington, whose family was from Richmond County. They sharecropped on land near Rockingham, North Carolina. Harrington worked the fields and raised her five children. Weldon Harrington left the family some time in the 1920s. Stories differ as to why he left, but granddaughter Elizabeth Hunter stated that he killed a white landowner then escaped from prison and fled north. Having tremendously difficulty raising her family alone, Anna Harrington journeyed north in 1932 with a well-to-do white family who lived in Nedrow, New York, south of Syracuse. She lived with the family as a cook. Weldon Harrington subsequently found his family living in Syracuse and stayed with them during the late 1930s and early 1940s. As a runaway convict who feared capture, he eventually left Syracuse for Maine, where he died a few years later.
Sometime between 1933 and 1935, Anna Harrington took a job at Syracuse University, where she cooked for several campus fraternities. Ironically, the favorite meal of the students was pancakes. News of Harrington’s cooking skills soon spread throughout the state and she was featured in media interviews. Her popularity eventually resulted in her discovery by the Quaker Oats Company, which hired Harrington to travel nationwide portraying “Aunt Jemima” and ultimately made her a national celebrity. Chauffeured or flown by jet around the country, Harrington served Aunt Jemima–brand pancake mix at store openings and other public events, living a lifestyle that eluded most blacks and whites. By the time of her death, the former sharecropper owned two homes and lived in an area occupied by the black elite of Syracuse.
Harrington died in Syracuse in 1955 at age fifty-eight from complications stemming from diabetes. She was buried in Syracuse’s Morningside Cemetery.
Golphin, Vincent F. A. “Anna Harrington Was Proud to Play Role of Aunt Jemima.” Santa Ana (Calif.) Orange County Register, November 16, 1995, p. El.