Ethel Earnestine Harper (born September 17, 1903 in Greensboro; died March 31, 1979 in Morristown, New Jersey) was a singer and actor most remembered for performing as the "Aunt Jemima" character for the Quaker Oats Company in the 1950s.
Ethel was the youngest of five children, and the only daughter, of educators Wiley W. and Emma Louise Jones Harper. When she was orphaned at age nine she spent a short time with an aunt in Selma, then moved to Birmingham to live with an older brother and his wife.
At Industrial High School Harper joined the Dramatic Club, which was invited to perform at the Jefferson Theatre. The experience inspired her to pursue a career in music and acting. She completed high school at fifteen and graduated from the Alabama State Teachers College two years later. She began teaching music at an elementary school in Northport, and later returned to Industrial High School, where she taught English and girls' choir, and also organized the annual Girls' Minstrel showcase. In 1927 she directed a 1,000-girl strong drill team performance at Legion Field.
With A. H. Parker's permission, Harper put together a student performing group, Ethel Harper's Rhythm Boys, which she led as emcee and vocalist. During the school year the group competed with similar orchestras, like Fred Averytt's Society Troubadours. In the summers she took the Rhythm Boys on tours to Chicago and New York. In 1934 the Birmingham Board of Education, apparently concerned about the appearance of a female teacher traveling with male students, intervened. One of the boys, Sonny Blount, took over as leader of the what became the Sonny Blount Band.
In 1936 Harper resigned from Birmingham Schools and moved to New York with two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, who wanted to land jobs as professional dancers. She planned to book herself into nightclubs for the summer, and then enroll in graduate studies at Columbia University. Her first engagement, at the Poosepahtuck Club, raised notice from the press. She followed up by winning an amateur competition at the Apollo Theatre with her rendition of "Without a Word of Warning". The prize was a week-long engagement at the lauded venue, where she was billed as "The Singing School Teacher from Alabama."
Buoyed by success, Harper postponed graduate school and joined the traveling revue "Connie's Hot Chocolates of '37" as part of the "Melody Maids" vocal trio. In 1939 she appeared in "Hot Mikado", a swing version of the Gilbert & Sullivan light opera starring Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and in "Swingin' the Dream", an adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" written by Benny Goodman with Butterfly McQueen and Louis Armstrong in the cast. She appeared in the Ed Sullivan / Noble Sissle production "Harlem Cavalcade" in 1942 as part of the "Four Ginger Snaps", which outlived the revue as a touring and recording act until 1947. Afterward she took a job as a waitress, until, by chance, talent agent Sam Gordon offered her a leading part in the "Negro Follies of 1955" production which was set to tour Italy.
After the tour ended, Harper remained in Italy, performing solo shows. After returning to New York she met another veteran vocalist, Edith Wilson, who was employed as the face of Aunt Jemima pancake mix. She had recommended the job to Harper before, but this time she accepted the invitation to accompany Wilson to an appearance in Norwalk, Connecticut. Despite misgivings about the cartoonish "black mammy" character and costume, Harper, with Wilson's reassurances, auditioned and took over the part, speaking to school and civic groups and raising charity funds all over the country. As she wrote in her memoir, "With the initial excitement over, and my contract signed, I had to now get down to the business of conditioning my thoughts and my heart to give to this job the necessary dignity and interpretation of which I first could be proud — and, hopefully —those members of my race who had qualms about anyone who played this character could also be proud. This was not easy but, thank God, I was able to do just this with His help."
Harper retired to Morristown, New Jersey in 1958. She continued to speak before audiences, but expanded on her well-worn "eat a good breakfast and mind your manners" talks as a field director for the Morris Area Girl Scout Council, retiring from the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York in 1969. She also joined the local NAACP branch and chaired its education committee, and headed the civil rights committee of her chapter of the League of Women Voters. She also returned to teaching and developed the first black history curriculum used in Morris County schools and at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. She also volunteered for Meals on Wheels, served as community outreach director at the Wetmore Towers retirement home, served on the New Jersey Commission on Aging, and created and hosted a talk radio program in Dover called, "Youth Speaks Out; Age Speaks Out; Are You Listening?"
Harper suffered a heart attack while driving in March 1979.
- Harper, Ethel (1970) Unpublished Autobiography, in the Ethel Earnestine Harper Papers. North Jersey History Center, The Morristown and Morris Township Library, cited in Mathews-2017
- "Ethel Harper, Actress Was Aunt Jemima In Ads for Pancakes." (April 3, 1979) The New York Times
- Mathews, G. H. Burgin (March 13, 2017) "The “Singing School Marm” & Sun Ra: The Ethel Harper Story, Part One" Burgin Mathews Blog
- Mathews, G. H. Burgin (March 23, 2017) "A Legacy Unsung: The Ethel Harper Story, Part Two" Burgin Mathews Blog