From Slavery to Present Day: The Evolution of African Americans in Advertising

Advertising, in one form or another, has been around since the beginning of civilization. There is no way to know when it actually began, but one can argue advertising was set in motion when that first merchant selling his goods, at the first market, placed a sign on his merchandise to inform buyers of the prices. Simple in thought, but that is exactly what advertisements were in the 1840s when newspapers, the first media in what is known today as mass media, began selling very basic ads. Thirty years before the first advertising agency opened its doors, the first advertising agent, Volney Palmer, in 1843, opened a business in Philadelphia expressly for the purpose of selling ads. Working as a representative for the newspapers, Palmer “acted as [an] agent for the media, not the advertisers.” His business existed solely for the purposes of “soliciting orders for advertising, sending along (but not preparing) the copy thus obtained, and collecting payment from the advertisers.” From this simple beginning, advertising has evolved and changed and has grown into “one of the dominant forces in…America. Among the pillars of our popular culture, advertising stands with TV, sports, movies, pop music, and the print media as unavoidable features of modern life.”

Even with its long history, advertising has not always presented the products and services it represents with positive messages or images. African Americans, for example, have appeared in advertising but have
“[h]istorically…appeared in ads playing roles familiar to the white majority: Aunt Jemima, the fat and swaddled black mammy;” to name but one stereotype advertisers have chosen to promote their products. Ads using racial stereotypes are “created by whites for white audiences” and “unfortunately represent blacks as whites imagined them, extending but not inventing typical racial stereotypes.” Advertising, in its simplest form of newspaper ads to present day mass media, has exploited African Americans since the time of slavery. But there is a success story within that exploitation. Although racial stereotyping still exists within all areas of mass media, there has been a slow, albeit very slow, evolution of African Americans within advertising that is heading in the right direction. The forward motion is apparent when looking at slaves advertised for sale, runaway slave advertisements, racial stereotypes within advertising, and then present day, where some African Americans are selling products using their own names and marketing themselves through mass media.

Old Slave Advertisement from 1812

Slaves Advertised for Sale

African Americans appeared within advertisements for the first time during the earliest years of American slavery. Enslaved Africans were advertised for sale “[f]rom the legalizing of American slavery in 1611 until its closure in 1863.” Through these advertisements, historians have learned that “many of the black Americans who were sold, bartered, raffled, chased, and sometimes apprehended were not illiterate, unskilled, and uneducated.” The advertisements appeared on “[p]osters in windows, flyers, and [in] newspapers” in the same way that “inanimate objects are advertised today.” In 1690, The Boston News-Letter was the first newspaper to begin publishing a regular weekly paper in the American colonies and often published advertisements for slaves. Many times the slaves were not even advertised by name — another dehumanizing aspect of slavery. An example of this type of advertisement appeared in The Boston News-Letter on March 21, 1734:

A likely Negro Man about Twenty two Years of Age, speaks good English, has had the
Smallpox and the Measles, has been seven Years with a LIME BURNER: To be sold,
Inquire of John Langdon, Baker, next Door to John Clarke’s at the North End, Boston.

Sometimes advertisements were placed to give babies away. Like ads for “free puppies” in today’s newspapers. Many examples of this type of ad appeared in The Boston News-Letter sometime between 1770 and 1774. One ad in particular stated: “To Be Given Away. A very, likely Negro Female Child, of as fine a breed as any in America. Enquire of the Printer.” Often advertised with other agricultural products such as rice, grain, and seed, those who were enslaved were also advertised with cattle, pigs, and other livestock. Because slaves were identified within ads or posters as property they were often called “chattel,” meaning an article of personal, moveable property, according to The American Heritage Dictionary. These types of advertisements were posters that advertised an auction of livestock and agricultural products.

Slave Advertisement

The domestic slave was also bought and sold within newspaper advertisements. It is from these ads and the way in which whites depicted these enslaved women in writing that the racial “mammy” stereotype began. That racial stereotype is still believed today and is reinforced through advertisements and movies as late as the early sixties. About the mammy it was believed, by white society, that the “fulfillment for black women comes not from raising their own children or feeding their own man…but from serving a white family’s kitchen.” The comforting image that whites have associated with the mammy character is her ability to nurture whites from just after birth until death — loyally and without regard to herself because her happiness is derived from serving whites. There is such comfort in this mammy figure for white Americans, even as unrealistic the image is of the domestic female slave, that advertisers would later use the mammy stereotype to sell products, such as the Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, for generations. The mammy could not be farther from reality because as loyal and hard working as she may have appeared to be, the domestic servant was enslaved, forced to be in service to whites. Good behavior was required or beatings, starvation, the threat of being sold, or the threat of death always hung over her if she was not obedient and in good service to the whites who owned her. The domestic servant, or mammy, would have preferred her freedom rather than remain a “loyal servant” to her master or mistress. Because of this desire for freedom, even the domestic servant female slave was found in another type of advertising.

Runaway Slave Advertisements

In addition to ads for slave sales, African Americans appeared in runaway slave advertisements. Historian Winthrop D. Jordan ascertains that “[p]robably more time, money, and energy was expended on this problem by white slaveowners, legislatures, constables, jailers, and newspaper printers than on any other aspect of administering the slave system.” The fact that so many slaves ran away is proof that they were not content being slaves, as the stereotypes like to make society believe and as those stereotypes are reinforced through later advertisements and films. In all fairness, however, the majority of runaway slaves were young males. Women rarely ran away and even rarer was for a female slave to run away after she had children.

Once an enslaved woman became a mother she would remain as close to her children as possible. Harriet Jacobs, a slave woman who worked as a domestic servant while enslaved, ran away when her resistance to sexual exploitation by her master caused him to threaten to send her children to the plantation for hard labor. This threat meant Jacobs would not have been able to protect them from the harsh life experienced by field slaves. Jacobs believed that if she was not there to fan the flame of her master’s desire, and consequently his anger because of her resistance to his harrassment, her children would be safe. Jacobs ran away, but remained in a tiny space above her grandmother’s home, a garret so small she could do nothing more than crawl or lay down. Jacobs waited until her children were freed from slavery by their white father — not her master, but a wealthy lawyer who lived on the same street as her grandmother’s bakery. Once sold to their father, Jacobs’ children were sent to the north as freed slaves and she escaped to the north as well. Jacobs’ master ran newspaper ads, offering a $100 reward for her return, from the day she ran away in 1842 until his death in 1850. Jacobs finally gained her freedom after nearly twenty years on the run. Her master never changed the wording of the original ad he had posted for her capture. James Norcom, Jacobs’ master and tormentor, continued to run the ad in the newspaper and posted flyers around Edenton, NC where Harriet was enslaved and within the towns Norcom was told she had been spotted.

Runaway Slave Advertisement for Harriet Jacobs — Edenton, NC 1842

Advertisements for runaway slaves always integrated a description of the slaves, clothing, and identifying marks and in many cases their character and motives were included. The advertisements were placed in the “classified advertisement” section of “local and regional newspapers, in much the same way that ads for “lost” articles or stolen items, particularly animals, are placed today.” Thus, African Americans were treated like animals just as they had been in the advertisements for slave sales. These ads were very powerful within society. There was always a reward offered and those whites who found a runaway could earn several hundred dollars for the slaves return.

Abolitionists were also on the look out for runaways in order to help them further escape. Frederick Douglas ran away to the north and was spotted by someone who recognized him from an advertisement. The man who found him did not turn him in, but rather helped him hide for a few days in safety. The network of abolitionists benefited from the amount of advertising that had flooded the newspapers within society. Some abolitionists were able to keep track of family members who had been separated through slave sales for differing reasons: slaves were sold as punishment, to cover debts, because the master died and his “property” was divided amongst his heirs, and because the wife of a slave owner insisted on the sales because of the sexual exploitation of female slaves by their masters. Using advertisements to provide information to family members who had no idea where their loved ones had gone was a positive, yet rare, use of advertisements for African Americans in the days of slavery. The down side to the advertisements was how they perpetuated, among those within society, the characteristics and behaviors of African Americans that would eventually become racial stereotypes used to promote products through advertising.

$100.00 Reward. Runaway from the subscribed on the night of the 6th Nov. negro man,
frank. He is about 5ft. 9 inches in height, 37 years of age, weighing about 140, of dark
mulatto color, not fleshy, some of his teeth rotten in front, with a small scar on his forehead,
over one eye, caused by a kick from a horse when a child, and very polite in manner when
an end is to be gained. He is a carpenter.

The desription “very polite in manner when an end is to be gained” is an example of a characteristic that was reinforced through stereotyping. The dishonest or shifty slave is a stereotype holding fast to the coon stereotype. The “coon” appeared in television and films late into the seventies with shows like Sanford and Son.

Racial Stereotypes within Advertising

“Ever since advertising became instrumental in the selling of ideas, services, and products, blacks have been used to increase their recognizability.” There have been many corporations and advertising agencies that used African American racial stereotypes as a way to promote products, but “none more pervasive than that of servant and caretaker.” The need to get society to feel comfortable with African Americans representing products as characters on the packaging brought about the use of these racial stereotypes. White Americans would only accept the character if the person representing the product did not behave in a manner that was threatening to whites. The old plantation slave stereotypes did not make society feel threatened because it was the plantation slave that cared for the white family in domestic servitude. In the late 1800s when Aunt Jemima and other racial stereotyped representations first appeared, many whites would have grown up with a slave caretaker so there would have been comfort in those representations. Some examples of these racial stereotypes being presented through advertising and product packaging were Rastus, the Cream of Wheat chef; the Gold Dust Twins washing powder; Sambo; Mandy the maid; Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice; and, again, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix. For this blog the focus will be on Aunt Jemima.

Early Aunt Jemima Flour Packaging
The character of Aunt Jemima began in the late nineteenth century as a character on the minstrel stage; a character played by Billy Kersands, in black face, which was common for the period. He was well known for singing “Old Aunt Jemima” in his minstrel show. It was this minstrel character that would become the face on the first package of Pancake mix. The company, the Pearl Milling Company, which was founded in 1888 by Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood, determined they wanted to find a real life woman who could play the role of Aunt Jemima serving up pancakes. In 1893, the founders decided to show their product at the World’s Fair. The name of the new product, the founders decided, would come from that old minstrel show. Aunt Jemima was supposed to represent an ex-slave from the plantation in slavery days. In essence she was to represent the mammy figure — the racial stereotype. From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.

Notice the way in which this “Mammy Character” speaks….stereotyping the days of slavery.
Since the character Aunt Jemima became the face of the pancake mix that bears the same name, controversy has surrounded the representation of African Americans in product recognition. The J. Walter Thompson Advertising Agency was responsible for the campaign that set the pancake product on its original journey. R.T. Davis is credited with coming up with the promotional strategy that led to the trademark that is Aunt Jemima Pancake Flour. By using box-top premiums, the ability to get a small toy for a box top and usually a small amount of money for postage, the pancake flour soared to number one as a popular pancake mix. It would remain number one for more than one hundred years. Different premiums were offered on a regular basis throughout the first part of the 1960s. These premiums spread the stereotype that the mammy, Aunt Jemima, was happy to serve every white family that bought her pancake flour. Children sent away for rag dolls in the likeness of Aunt Jemima—a manipulation that would force parent to buy the pancake mix their children desired. The image became inseparable with the product, but “during the civil rights movement the product line was discontinued because” African Americans felt that the images were “derogatory and degrading.” It was believed that the product was reinforcing the racial stereotypes that persisted which became front and center during Reconstruction.
The Controversial Packaging

The product was only discontinued for a short time and it is remains a major product on store shelves today. The power of advertising and the association of an image with a product are critical to the success of that product. Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix currently enjoys a product line of thirty-three products and sales of more than ninety-two million dollars annually. The Quaker Oats Company bowed to pressure and seven years ago changed the image on the package to appear as a more modern African American woman.

Present Day Aunt Jemima Packaging and Advertisement
The image no longer features any of the stereotypical characteristics of the mammy figure—such as the scarf on her head. The image has become so small and has changed so much, one can only wonder why they have not just removed it or have not put a face of other ethnicities on different products to keep the heated debate from continuing. But even though the Aunt Jemima image is still looked at as a negative reminder of bad times within American history, there has been a shift in advertising concerning African Americans that is much more positive.

African Americans Marketing Themselves

Oprah Winfrey Using her name and image to sell her own magazine.
With a long history of African Americans in advertising and the way in which they were advertised being much more negative than positive, a trend of late has really changed that. Today, African Americans are marketing products for the first time that bear their names. Products mass marketed that are within the total control of the African American whose name appears on the product. Oprah Winfrey and Hearst Publishing have been printing and promoting her O: The Oprah Magazine since April of 2000. The magazine boasts subscriptions of close to 2.7 million readers with about another third purchased off news stands. Oprah has a recognizable face and anything she puts her name on does very well. Winfrey has also started a movement of readers by creating the “Oprah Book Club” which has made every book she has placed as a must read for her club a number one book on the New York Best Seller’s List.

Another major celebrity that is marketing his own product line is Tiger Woods, the golf professional and arguably the most talented golfer in the history of the sport. He will be marketing Tiger-Ade in late 2008, a Gator-Ade product that is expected to become one of the biggest money making products in recent history. The success of Woods on the golf course has made him a spokesperson for many product lines in the past, but this will be his first venture into his own label and product. Serena Williams is another up and coming sports legend that has begun marketing a clothing line, the Serena Signature Line, created with Nike. The clothing line should be available in 2008.

These African Americans are advertising their products—essentially selling themselves, but for the first time in history, they are making the money on those sales. There are many other African American athletes who have marketed products using their names, but this trend is fairly new—Michael Jordan being one of the firsts a decade ago. The representation of African Americans in advertisements for these products has been positive because the image is that of the athlete and/or Oprah Winfrey—all trademarks at the head of their own corporations. Advertising is managed and dictated by the name behind the product as not to damage the image or reputation of the name sake of the product line. Essentially, advertising has become powerful in continuing, and in many ways forwarding, the images and reputations of those marketing products to consumers. Society opens its arms to sports heroes and to Oprah Winfrey. It is a positive move for society, and for advertising, that the representations of African Americans is improving based on the ads for the marketed products by known sports legends and celebrities. This will only forward the positive representations for other products and maybe Aunt Jemima will eventually be put to rest.

The evolution of African Americans in advertising has been long and slow and ugly. But the end result is coming about in more positive images and changes that will only assist society in closing the gap that exists because of racial history within the United States and a new, race free relationship within society. Advertising continues to exploit African Americans every time a product advertised and an African American represents the product in a negative or stereotypical manner. But as time goes on, the Tiger Woods’ and the Oprah Winfrey’s will force society to become more comfortable with African Americans in their respected roles—as themselves—as opposed to the comfortable racial stereotypical images that society has grown to know and feel comfortable with, and superior to. From slavery to Aunt Jemima to present day marketing of products bearing the names of major celebrities, the evolution of African Americans in advertising has been long and is finally something positive within the advertising industry and society.


1. Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators
(New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1984), 14. All quoted and summarized information within the opening paragraph is included within this one citation.

2. Ibid., 278.

3. Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising,
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 2. This and the preceding quote in line one.

4. Ibid., 3.

5. Ibid., 5.

6. Ibid.

7. Patricia A. Turner, Ceramics, Uncles, and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and their
Influences on Culture (New York: Anchor Books, 1994), 25.

8. Ibid., 43.

9. Class Notes, Dr. Jill Watts—History of Slavery in the United States. Fall 2006.

10. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550
-1812 (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1968), 107.

11. Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 2000. The story of Harriet Jacobs quickly summarized from her autobiography.

12. Marilyn Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising,
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1994), 10.

13. Ibid., 12.

14. Ibid., 61.

15. Ibid.

16. M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 1.

17. Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus, 63.

18. Dr. David Pilgrim, “Real Mammies” by Professor of Sociology. Ferris State University,
Oct. 2000. This and two preceding sentences taken directly from the article on the website.

19. Kern-Foxworth, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus, 66 and 73.

20. Ibid., 75.

21. O, The Oprah Magazine, and
Oprah’s Books,

22. Tiger-Ade is Liquid Gold,


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Images within are being used for educational purposes only and no copyright ownership or ownership of image is implied or suggested. The sites where the images were taken are:

Old Slave Ad –

2 thoughts on “From Slavery to Present Day: The Evolution of African Americans in Advertising

  1. Thank you for sharing. I really enjoyed reading this post. I am looking at advertisement so differently. I do not want to be a part of driving the profits of a company at the expense of other races. I believe it is imperative that the generations today begin to understand and educate themselves of the power in advertising and the people it could possibly effect in lieu of the ad. I know this post has educated me as well as made me more conscious of the products I will purchase going forward. Further, this post inspired me to look further into ads today as well as vintage ads. I know your focus was Aunt Jemima’s Pancakes. I in turn would like to share others with you as well as your readers and followers.
    Published on 12/19/2009 under Cool Ads, by Grace Murano is an article of 12 Outrageous Racist Ads.
    I encourage others to view these ads as they gave me better insight of how racism is promoted in order for the white men to prosper.
    To mention a few….
    A Van Hensen advertisement showing 5men in which 4 are white and 1 of color. The 4 white men are wearing Van Heusen Oxfords while the man of color is bare. The ad states 4 out of 5 men want oxfords.
    An ad from 1937 of a couple on their honey moon. The women has a cold and this ad is promoting a laxative that both works as a laxative as well as helps Nature counteract acidity. Go to link under the ad and read the statements in the ad. They use a ridiculous stereotype language of the porter explaining how a laxative can cure a cold. The ad is for Sal Hepatica and the porter says “Pahdon me, fo’

    1. Sorry something happened. Anyway…. To continue… The porter states. “Pahdon me, fo’ overhearin’ yo’, but Sal Hepatica does both dose things. It’s a min’ral salt laxative and it helps Nature counteract acidity, too. Las’ trip a doctah tole me.” then later the bride says to tip the porter double for the info.
      Another ad from 1924 advertising Maxwell House Coffee is another example of racism in publicity. It features a black servant for white people in coffee-serving duties.
      Another Cream of Kentucky straight Bourbon Whiskey. It portrays two well known stereotypes. A white man dressed very well and a black man as his servant, serving the whiskey on a platter.
      Another where the ad is promoting Darkey in a Watermelon. It states Upon opening the watermelon which is made of papier mâché. Is found a little “pickaninny”, southern darky with cloth diaper fastened with a miniature safety pin and a small nursing bottle. His white eyes flash and the whole face indicates perfect happiness. Complete Tool Set in a Nutshell. Slaves were not happy. They associated watermelon with the colored. Etc… See ad.
      There are more, one on tobacco, boots, cars etc…
      Once again, thank you. Like I said, your post inspired me to look further at advertising. Going forward, I will not purchase items promoting racism. It is ashame that this is still a part of marketing/advertising. Even more. This is very informative, educational, and a lesson in history…. Something all generations need to be aware and conscious of. Thanks again.

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