Bottles of Aunt Jemima syrup are displayed for sale at a grocery store in Connecticut in Aug. 2011.
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August 14, 2014 7:24 AM EDT

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Change doesn’t come easy. For popular brands even with controversial images, that seems to be especially true.

The most obvious example is the Washington Redskins football team, which has been embroiled in controversy recently for refusing to change its name despite claims that it is demeaning and prejudicial towards Native Americans.

A lawsuit filed in Chicago federal court last week pointed to another prominent instance of branded racism. The great grandsons of the woman who assumed the role of Aunt Jemima in 1935 accused several companies of benefiting from her likeness without paying for it.

In a class action lawsuit, D.W. Hunter and Larnell Evans claim that PepsiCo Inc. PEP 0.20% , its subsidiary Quaker Oats Co. (which sells Aunt Jemima syrup), and Pinnacle Foods (which makes Aunt Jemima frozen pancakes) schemed to deny that their great grandmother, Anna Short Harrington, had worked for Quaker Oats while refusing to pay her royalties for 60 years, as products bearing her image brought in millions of dollars in sales.

Quaker Oats declined to discuss the details of the lawsuit but said in a statement that the company believes it has no merit. Pinnacle PF 0.32% said that it has a policy of not commenting on pending litigation. (Hillshire Brands HSH 0.19% is also named as a defendant. The complaint characterizes the firm as Pinnacle’s merger partner, but that deal never went through. The company declined to comment.)

Beyond the eye-popping sum that the plaintiffs are seeking—$2 billion, plus punitive damages to be determined at trial—the lawsuit is notable for its chronicling of the alleged exploitation of Harrington and her fictitious character’s unsavory past.

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