Edith Wilson Papers
740 East 56th Place
Chicago, Illinois 60637
Extent: .5 Linear Feet
Finding Aid: None
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Highly regarded as a blues singer and vaudeville performer by the 1920s, Edith Wilson went on to perform on radio, television, and as a spokeswoman for the Quaker Oats Company. Wilson was born Edith Goodall on September 2, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky to Susan Jones and Hundley Goodall. After performing locally in her youth and at Louisville’s Park Theater, Wilson moved to Chicago and worked in local cabarets and clubs in 1921. In this period, she formed a musical trio with siblings Lena Wilson and Danny Wilson. Wilson became well known for her song, “He May Be Your Man (But He Comes to See Me Sometimes),” but her first recording was “Nervous Blues,” which she recorded with Johnny Dunn’s Jazz Hounds in 1921 for Columbia Records. In that same year, she appeared in the all-black revue Put and Take, after which Wilson was a constant presence on stages in New York and Europe. Throughout the 1920s, she toured with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit and performed in New York, including a long run with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra at Club Alabam. She also sang and performed in comedy skits in Lew Leslie’s Plantation Revue, European revues Chocolate Kiddies and Leslie’s Blackbirds tour, and in longer theater runs in Paris. Wilson transitioned from the heyday of black revues to less frequent performances in the early 1930s, working alongside Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, Bubber Miley, and Jimmie Lunceford. Looking for steadier work in the late 1930s, Wilson moved to California and toured on Burt Levy’s West Coast Circuit. She also took on small acting roles in the films I’m Still Alive (1940) and To Have and Have Not (1944), and larger roles on the radio programs The Great Gildersleeve and Amos ‘n’ Andy, in which she played the mother-in-law of Kingfish. She also performed with the United Service Organization (USO) on US military bases during World War II. She met Millard Wilson in this period and they married in 1947.
Around 1948, Wilson was hired by the Quaker Oats Company to portray the character of Aunt Jemima, a cook who was featured on the boxes of the company’s pancake mixes. Wilson referred to herself frequently as the “last Aunt Jemima” but she was actually one of at least four women who represented the character for Quaker Oats in the 1950s and 1960s. These performers included Aylene Lewis, who worked in “Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House” at Disneyland, and Ethel Ernestine Harper and Rosie Hall, who both toured as Aunt Jemima. Wilson represented the company on the radio (where she could be heard on either a weekly or thrice-weekly radio program on ABC), was seen in television appearances, and in person for civic, charity, and service clubs across the country. Throughout this period, the NAACP and other civil rights organizations campaigned against racist portrayals of African-American life. These groups specifically targeted the “Aunt Jemima” character and called for an end to it. Following such pressure, Quaker Oats ended local appearances of Aunt Jemima in 1965 and subsequently ended Wilson’s employment in 1966.
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