IN 1911 LILLIAN RICHARD WAS A girl leaving home: a twenty-year-old saying good-bye to her parents, eleven siblings, and duties on the family farm; a young African American leaving her small northeast Texas town of Hawkins for the call of the big city. Of course, she took with her that standard girl-leaving-home dream to make it, never knowing that the legacy she was embarking upon would one day be the lure to draw travelers to the town she was now departing.
Richard landed in Dallas and soon accepted employment with Quaker Oats as one of several black women who dressed as the iconic Aunt Jemima to peddle pancakes. Aunt Jemima is said to be based on a character from a Missouri minstrel show seen by two entrepreneurs who were honing their pancake recipe in 1889. Quaker Oats acquired the Aunt Jemima trademark in 1926 and revived the portrayals in the thirties. “She was acting, singing, telling them how good it was,” Richard’s niece Jewel R. McCalla, who once saw her aunt’s demonstration in Mineola, told the Houston Chronicle in 1996. “She carried a lot of friends. I guess that’s what got her into the pancake business.”
After 36 years in the business (she played the role from 1911 to 1947), Richard returned to her birthplace, settling in until she passed in 1956. Buried with her in the Fouke Cemetery is much of the anecdotal history of her time as the face of Aunt Jemima, but in a 1994 newspaper article, McCalla revitalized her aunt’s legacy. Capitalizing on this homegrown “celebrity,” the local chamber of commerce urged Dallas senator David Cain to work the wheels of the 1995 Legislature and declare Hawkins the “Pancake Capital of Texas.”
Legend has it that Hawkins’ namesake is a construction worker, a Mr. Hawkins who one day, while helping to ready the fertile Wood County area for incoming families, carved his name into a tree. In 1873 the area’s 250 residents queried Washington, D.C., for a post office, which in turn requested a town name. The applicants turned to the etched-in tree, and Hawkins has been Hawkins ever since.
In 1940 Hawkins’ population rocketed into the quadruple digits courtesy of an oil boom. So thankful is the town (now with more than 1,300 residents), that every October it celebrates with an Oil Festival. Still, it’s Lillian Richard’s work that Hawkins is currently touting. Who knew a young girl leaving home would leave such a legacy.