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  • Kalyn McCall

Uncle Walt Embraces Aunt Jemima

Walt Disney believed in Thomas Jefferson’s empire of liberty, and like Jefferson, normalized the institution of slavery in that vision. When Disneyland first opened in 1955, Disney’s South was not housed in its own separate section but was part of his Frontierland and part of the process of formalizing America’s identity. Frontierland was described as the true, historic West:

Glimpses of the old and historic western movement of American history are provided to visitors of Disneyland in Frontierland. The period of Frontierland is approximately from 1840 to 1860, but the flags flying over Frontierland encompass the period from the establishment of our union of states under the Constitution through the post-Civil War era.

Disney understood that the West was not just a region, as depicted at Knott’s Berry Farm, but was a process, for him stemming from the 1790s and the post-Revolutionary War period to 1876 and the end of federal Reconstruction. Disney’s Frontierland memorializes the period of expansion that brought the nation to disunion, brought turmoil to his home state Missouri, and fomented a war that threatened the very existence of the union of states he held dear. Yet for him, the world of the Old South was one to be treasured and perennially relived.

Essential to immersing visitors in the Old South were eating and Southern food culture. In Frontierland, visitors could experience some of the park’s best cuisine by visiting Swift’s Chicken plantation for “fine feed and gracious Southern hospitality” and finding “days of the Old South relived” at Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen. Nestled along the River of America, the Chicken Plantation and Pancake House were some of the park’s original eateries. In particular, Aunt Jemima was a runaway success. At the time of the park’s opening, Aunt Jemima was described on the same level of Disney’s original characters Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck:

Nationally known, vital, living personality known to millions join[ing] Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Snow White, Peter Pan and the hundreds of other beloved story book characters who dwell in Disneyland when “Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen” opens in Disneyland July 18… the charm will be the keynote as Aunt Jemima herself prepares and serves her world-famous pancakes. Entertainment will be mood music of Stephen Foster and his era plus Aunt Jemima singing songs in her style that has entertained millions on TV, radio, and in personal appearances before audiences throughout the country.

While activists marched, Disney likened Aunt Jemima to his cartoon characters, creating a separation between America’s turbulent realities and the fantasy of the Lost Cause and a time where black people enjoyed their subservience. When opening the gates of his kingdom to the world, Disney, reflecting on his dreams and aspirations for the park, proclaimed that: “To all that come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America... with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world⁠.” For black Americans, their inclusion in this vision was predicated by their subservience and the happiness they felt in the state of bondage. When guests got hungry, they could step back in time, eat at The Plantation House, or be served at Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen “where you can enjoy some of those famous Aunt Jemima Pancakes in an authentic old south atmosphere.” Slavery was part of the fantasy, essential to experiencing “the happiest place on Earth.”

Disney’s Southern fantasy proved more popular than ever expected. Anaheim’s Aunt Jemima, the third to hold the mantle, was a unique success story, so much so that the original kitchen had to be replaced to meet the capacity of the crowds. Furthermore, Aunt Jemima’s slave-past was not an embarrassment or something to be run away from. It became a centerpiece of Disneyland’s marketing. Her potent backstory allowed visitors to believe the fantasy and made Disney’s portrayal more authentic. Disneyland marketing reported:

Aunt Jemima’s story begins in the pre-Civil War South…As a cook on the [Mississippi] Plantation of Colonel Higbee ‘before the war’ Aunt Jemima was known far and wide for the fine table she set…. Aunt Jemima’s first step toward world-wide fame came one day near the end of the ‘War Between the States.’ A Confederate general and his orderly became separated from the troops and stopped at Aunt Jemima’s cabin to ask directions. She insisted they have a ‘snack’ and served them pancakes the taste of which the general never forgot.

According to the legend, a northern flour mill heard of her pancakes and traveled down the Mississippi and a steamboat to convince her to share her secret, resulting in her appearance at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Taking part in a long tradition of minstrelsy and spectacle in America, Aunt Jemima “separated black identities from black American bodies, making representations of blackness a commodity” and perpetuated the “association of black figures with white service.” This sentimental racism was not just inferred, but advertised as an integral part of the Disneyland experience. The figure of the black mammy and black subservience had been symbolically associated with the liberation of white women, but at Disneyland that liberation was real. Suburban mothers would love Disneyland given that: “Swift’s fine chicken, expertly prepared, is the house specialty and the atmosphere seems to have been lifted right out of Delta Plantation… So, mother can forget the problem of ‘What shall we have for dinner tonight?” at Disneyland.” In Disneyland, visitors experienced the world the way Disney imagined it should be. The Civil War never happened, replaced by the War Between the States, and despite the promises of emancipation and the realities of reconstruction, black Americans exited only to serve. By 1963, the only black employee able to have contact with patrons with Aylene Green, who portrayed Aunt Jemima at the Aunt Jemima Pancake house in Frontierland.

Disney’s South had never known conflict. Accentuating the illusion was the placement of both eateries along the River of America, where the “Mark Twain” steamboat gently passed by. The “Mark Twain” docked “at the New Orleans section of Frontierland for its trip into the nostalgic splendor of the Old South and Early America, and carries a cargo of boxes, barrels, wooden buckets, sacks and cotton bales.” While authenticating his visions with the symbols and “characters” associated with slavery, Disney created a South defined by its distance between contemporary unrest and a fantastic, idealized past, where slaves were endearing, familiar, and figures that only existed in the white imagination. Critically, Walt sold his vision of the past by allowing visitors to indulge in a nostalgic image of “blackness” that only existed in the past. In the suburban South of Walt’s imagination, black Americans needed nothing, did not want anything, and only existed to serve, not settle.

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