Gwen Reed was an actress and advocate for childhood literacy. At a young age, Reed found her passion for theater, performing and later directing several productions. She would later become a recognized face of a product by the Quaker Oats Company, the face of “Aunt Jemima.”
Reed was born Gwendolyn B. Clarke was born in Harlem, New York, in 1912. Her parents separated and Reed moved with her mother to Hartford, Connecticut. While in Hartford, her mother found work pulling crops, and when Reed was old enough she also found work in the fields.
With very little formal education, Reed received lessons in math and spelling from her mother while they worked. She would later graduate from Harford Public High School. After high school, Reed studied law briefly at Hartford Federal College. Shortly after getting married in 1935, she found work as a secretary for the Charles Gilpin Players who performed as part of the Connecticut Federal Theatre Project’s “Negro Unit.” Reed accepted a role in the production of Trilogy in Black in 1937. It was a small role but one that would lead to many other roles.
The role that Reed is best known for and stabilized her finances and security – was the role of Aunt Jemima, the fictional spokesperson for Quaker Oats Company. Reed was the face of Aunt Jemima from 1946 until 1964. During her time as the face of Aunt Jemima, Reed traveled across the country promoting the brand at grocery stores, state fairs, pancake festivals, and at schools. One interesting fact to note, in the newspaper clippings that were printed about Reed’s appearances, her real name was never used.
Reed also dedicated her time to community work. She was passionate about educating young children and spent a significant amount of time in the Children’s Corner of the Hartford Public Library to read stories to the children. This role letter led to Reed appearing on a local television segment on Channel 3 entitled, “Story Time with Gwen Reed.”
Reed continued acting and appeared in A Raisin in the Sun and Purlie Victorious. She left the Hartford Community Players in 1967 and died seven years later.