Sunday, December 21, 2008

Pass the Pickaninny Peppermints, please!

Yesterday I mentioned in passing the Whitman’s Sampler, an American confectionary classic. What little boy hasn’t bought his mom a Whitman’s Sampler for Mother’s Day? (And then tried to cop the chocolate-covered cherry for himself?)

Well, I just learned something I didn’t know about the Whitman’s company. One of its most popular items in the first half of the 20th Century was called “Pickaninny Peppermints.” Yes... with Negro faces on the box and everything.

Guess who led the fight in the early 1940s to get Whitman’s Candies to drop that “Pickaninny” shit? A young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall... future Supreme Court Justice of the United States.

Juan Williams tells the story in his 1998 book “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary.” And here it is:
JUAN WILLIAMS: Marshall... was not comfortable with the sensationalism often used by reporters, and he initially resisted being drawn away from legal issues and into highly publicized crusades.

For example, [NAACP leader Walter] White started a media campaign against the continued use of crude, racist stereotypes in popular culture. In magazines, in advertisements, and on the radio, black Americans were commonly referred to as “darkies” and “shines.”

White had recently sought to get a shrimp company to change the name of one of its brands, Nigger Head Shrimp.

Marshall thought White needed a public relations agent, not a lawyer, for these cultural wars. But as he became closer to White, Marshall saw the potential of such protests.

He began by publicizing a letter he wrote challenging the Whitman candy company for selling Pickaninny Peppermints. Whitman’s production manager wrote back that the word was not a slur but meant a “cute colored kid.” Marshall exchanged letters with Whitman’s executives for more than four years.

He got Carl Murphy and the Afro-American involved. The paper ran a front-page story headlined: “If You Want to Be Called a Name, Buy Whitman’s.”

Marshall complained to the candy company that Pickaninny was as bad an epithet as “Sheeny, Dago, Kike and Wop.” Whitman’s eventually relented.


Kellybelle said...

I guess they were thinking Pickaninny Peppermints wd freshen your breath after you finished chewing "Nigger Hair Tobacco."

Seriously, though, I collect this stuff. And 20-somethings are always astounded when they see it.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ My aunt's a collector as well, Kellybelle. No shortage of things to collect.

Tafari said...

Interesting tidbit. This type of item continues to trip me out.


Anonymous said...

Most interesting is the collaboration with the Black press to end it. Shows the power and the mission the Black press had those days.

You could argue - perhaps - that BET tried to have an impact on ghetto behavior with that show that got canceled but Negroes shot them down before it came out. It's a different day.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

That kind of stuff was very popular even through the mid-60s. Martin, Malcolm, the riots, and a host of attorneys changed a lot of things.

bklyn6 said...

Is that a Negro eating watermelon on the packaging!? Dayum.

No shortage of things to collect.

I went to the NY Historical Society a few years ago. There was an exhibit on the games people played during the turn of the 19th century. I was really captivated by the racist board games.

The Jim Crow Museum collects racist memorabilia. I love that website.

that dude said...

I get the importance of collecting stuff like this; but I could never do it. I can't put that much energy (and implies value) on evil.

I"m not saying "forget"...we can never fogive or forget; but I can't wallow in it either.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Tell me something, dude. Why not forgive?

What's wrong with "Forgive, but never forget"?

Campaspe said...

I love this story for Thurgood Marshall's involvement. I will reference it the next time I hear right-wingers complaining that modern-day civil rights advocates waste their time on "PC" matters.