A picture is worth a thousand words, yet it is not uncommon to find a photograph in our collections for which one thousand words would be sorely lacking. Take this, for example:
This is Aunt Jemima, portrayed by the actress Edith Wilson, receiving the Key to the City of Rockford, Illinois. The Mayor was scheduled to attend, but on the day of the ceremony it was Chief of Police Tom Beaustead who handed Wilson the key to the city. It might be better to say that this picture raises a thousand questions! What was happening on January 28, 1954 to produce this strange event?
Perhaps it is best to begin by explaining the ritual itself. The gifting of a key to the city is a ritual which stems back to the medieval ages, when walled cities would lock their gates most of the time for security reasons. Only people who were true friends of the city would be honored in this way. In recent years, however, the civic ritual has become more of a publicity stunt and less of a sincere gesture. This only raises more questions: was this a sincere gesture or just a photo opportunity? If it was sincere, what did Edith Wilson do to deserve the honor?
Edith Wilson was flown in by helicopter from Chicago (the helicopter landed on the courthouse lawn, the first time a helicopter had ever landed in downtown Rockford) to help raise support for the first annual Rockford Kiwanis Club Pancake Day on January 30, 1954. Wilson was constantly busy during her four day stay in Rockford. She met with the Kiwanis Club for their final planning meetings and made visits to schools, hospitals and children’s centers. She also provided the evening’s entertainment at the YMCA on Thursday night. For the big day itself, Wilson assisted with preparation and service, but the newspapers focused on her celebrity status and remarked that she was busy most of the day meeting with families and signing autographs. Pancake Day was a huge success right from the start, and Wilson’s efforts guaranteed that the event would be successful. The event raised over $8,000, and the proceeds went towards the renovation of the Lincoln Park Boy’s Club. Nevertheless, Wilson was here as a paid spokesperson of Quaker Oats to promote the Aunt Jemima brand, so it seems that the gifting of the key to the city was part publicity stunt, part sincere honor.
The photograph of Miss Wilson’s visit also sheds light on changes in race relations. The Aunt Jemima character has long been criticized for being an example of the “mammy” stereotype. The “mammy” stereotype depicted cheerful African Americans as servants.
All public appearances over the four days featured “Aunt Jemima”; the newspapers never even mention Wilson by her actual name. While she attended the final planning meeting, there is no evidence to suggest that her appearance was anything more than a photo opportunity. Wilson was an incredibly successful jazz and blues singer who shared the stage with greats such as Louis Armstrong, yet when she served as the night’s entertainment at the YMCA, the newspapers continued to bill her as Aunt Jemima. That said, the Rockford Register-Republic briefly mentioned that “the program includes dancing”, so it may have been that visitors got to hear some world-class music after all.
This photo is a revealing example of shifts taking place in our community in the 1950’s. The key gifting ritual was mostly done for the photo opportunity, yet it still required a measure of community service to deserve the honor. African-American portrayals were still racist, but a portrayal such as Wilson’s served to drum up support for local charities and organizations while also rousing the community towards positive ends. That, at least, is something worth commemorating with a hearty plate of flapjacks accompanied by the jazzy tunes of Edith Wilson herself.
–Post contributed by Ryan Zieglebauer, Midway Village Museum Interpeter and Volunteer