Sambo's Last Stand

A brand that wouldn't die finally breathes its last.

Why Did It Take So Long To Set Aunt Jemima Free?” asks Michele Norris, in the Washington Post. There’s no good answer. The name derives from a song performed in minstrel shows, and at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago the brand’s original owner hired an ex-slave named Nancy Green to dress up as a mammy and make pancakes while she reminisced about life on the plantation. Maurice Manring, author of Slave In A Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima does not exaggerate when he says Aunt Jemima was, quite literally, marketed as a slave for the busy housewife.  In radio ads Aunt Jemima was invited to share “old plantation sayings.” One print ad from 1938 was headlined “Pancake Days Is Happy Days” and had a picture of a smiling Aunt Jemima alongside the word bubble, “Only wif my magic recipe can you turn out dese tender, ‘licious, jiffy-quick pancakes dat makes yo’ family happy.”

Uncle Ben and Mrs. Butterworth have been placed on life support, and are not expected to recover. Sambo’s, of course, long ago went the way of the lawn jockey.

Except it didn’t. 

The restaurant chain featured wall illustrations of the 1899 English children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo (whose protagonist, interestingly, was South Asian, but was transformed in pictures for American editions into a “picaninny” caricature). From the moment of its founding one year after Brown v. Board of Education, Sambo’s was  a cringe-inducing disgrace, drawing on a long legacy of racist stereotype. (“Dat ol’ tiger sho do like dark meat,” Sambo’s mammy warns him in a cartoon adaptation from the 1930s.) Jarringly, the chain reached the height of its popularity in the 1970s. The NAACP sued to compel a name change, and lost. According to a 2014 account by Andrew Romano in the Daily Beast, it was a series of largely unrelated setbacks that prompted the chain to declare bankruptcy in 1982. One by one, Sambo’s restaurants disappeared.

Yet one brave little Sambo’s remained. The original restaurant, in Santa Barbara of all places, still stands. Chad Stevens, grandson of co-founder Sam Battistone, Jr., told Romano that “the brand was too valuable to give up” and two decades ago he even thought about rebuilding the chain. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office turned him down when he tried to patent the restaurant’s name. “They felt the Sambo’s name was a derogatory term,” Stevens explained. Imagine that.

The George Floyd protests finally persuaded Stevens that a name change was in order. Officially, the change was in response to a petition signed by nearly 4000 people. Unofficially, there appears to have been some recognition that a public accommodation called Sambo’s was begging to be torched. The sign was hastily covered over with a peace sign and the words “& LOVE,” and Stevens posted on Facebook:

Our family has looked into our hearts and realize that we must be sensitive when others whom we respect make a strong appeal. So today we stand in solidarity with those seeking change and doing our part as best we can… Please join us in this message of peace and love. 

Also please know we do not tolerate racism or violence. We are committed to being part of a long-term solution. 

A new name has not yet been chosen. May I propose “Clueless”?