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North Jersey History Center Online Exhibits

Ethel Harper

Harper head shot.jpg

Ethel Harper head shot

NJH&GC Ethel Harper Collection

Ethel Harper was born in 1903 in Greensboro, Alabama into a family of four boys. She graduated high school at the age of 15 years old and attended Montgomery State Teachers’ College on a scholarship. Upon attaining her degree two years later, she taught elementary and high school throughout Alabama. While teaching, Harper became interested in work with human relations and served in the Federated Negro Women’s Clubs, the YWCA, and volunteered in Alabama Churches. 

By 1936, Ethel moved to New York City and started a career as an entertainer. She entered and won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater and became a part of the singing ground, The Hot Chocolates, the following year. Harper acted on Broadway in “Hot Mikado,” later starring in the same production at the 1939 World’s Fair. Back on Broadway, Ethel starred in “Swinging the Dream” and in Ed Sullivan’s Harlem Cavalcade. She then joined the Four Ginger Snaps and went on the night club circuit before leaving in 1955 for Europe with the Negro Follies. 

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Harper’s professional picture as Aunt Jemima

NJH&GC Ethel Harper Collection

Upon returning the USA, Harper ran into an old friend from The Hot Chocolates, Edith Wilson. Wilson had been playing the role of Aunt Jemima with the Quaker Oats Company and thought Harper was a perfect fit as one of the singers. Harper was selected as one of the Aunt Jemima singers and toured the country entertaining at festivals, where she would make and sell pancakes, sing old spirituals and vaudeville tunes, and speak with children and housewives about cooking. Harper was without a job and took this one, but wrote “There was one aspect which had me in a quandary—the Aunt Jemima costume. First, I had quite an investment in glamourous costumes; and second, I had some inhibitions about wearing a bandana on my head, which gave me quite a bit of uneasiness. This was due to the general attitude of my race toward the character of Aunt Jemima.” Even with her misgivings and knowledge of the criticisms by the civil rights groups about the demeaning and degrading nature of Aunt Jemima, Harper took pride in her works as Aunt Jemima, defending her employers and her role, saying Jemima transcended the clichés (thanks to her and Wilson’s own performances) and that the people portraying Jemima raised money for charity and worked with civic clubs and service organizations.

    In 1958, Ethel came to the Morris Area while active in the Girl Scouts because, according her, “it had a nice quiet atmosphere.” In 1962 she was the first to teach Black History courses at Morristown High School. Harper also taught Black History at the adult school in Parsippany, conducted classes at the Neighborhood Youth Corps or the Office of Economic Opportunity, and taught Black History for 8th graders at Assumption High School in Morristown.

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"The Pie of My Life" by Ethel Harper

NJH&GC Ethel Harper Collection