People in the town of Millinocket, Maine, found their own ways to observe Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. Yet a sign posted in the window of an insurance company has received the most attention after it not only dismissed the new holiday but also included a racist trope regarding Black people and fried chicken.
“Juneteenth, it’s whatever … we’re closed,” the sign read outside of the Harry E. Reed Insurance Agency, according to a photo posted to social media. “Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens.”
As the firm has faced backlash over the sign, insurance giants Allstate and Progressive announced this week they are dropping the Maine company, after days of national headlines. An Allstate spokesperson said in a statement to The Washington Post that the company had terminated its contract with the Harry E. Reed agency, which Allstate described as an “independent agent.”
“Our commitment to Inclusive Diversity and Equity is nonnegotiable and we take action when individuals violate our code of conduct,” a statement from Allstate said.
Progressive spokesperson Jeff Sibel told The Post that the company was “appalled by the sign recently posted at the Harry E. Reed Agency” and that Progressive was also terminating its relationship with the firm.
“We’re committed to creating an environment where our people feel welcomed, valued and respected and expect that anyone representing Progressive to take part in this commitment,” Sibel said in a statement. “The sign is in direct violation of that commitment and doesn’t align with our company’s Core Values and Code of Conduct.”
Melanie Higgins, who helps run the insurance firm with her mother, wrote in a Wednesday letter posted to Facebook that she had posted the sign. Higgins apologized “for any misunderstanding or hurt that has arisen out of my usual, snarky office closure signs and content” and said she had been reprimanded for her actions.
“My only explanation I can offer is I had a death in my family and I just wanted to go home and I quickly wrote the note,” Higgins wrote, identifying herself as multiracial. “I can assure you all, truly, I would never in any facet of the word be characterized a racist. Nor would I purposely incite such acts.”
Messages left for the insurance firm were not immediately returned on Thursday.
Juneteenth recognizes the events of June 19, 1865, when people enslaved in Galveston, Tex., learned they were free more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The next year marked the first Juneteenth celebration statewide, and it has been a cultural mainstay since then, with parades, cookouts, art shows, and games. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday, in 1979.
After Juneteenth was made a federal holiday last year, some Black leaders were concerned that its historical significance would be co-opted by blowout sales on mattresses or patio furniture — much like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Some companies have faced social media blowback for early missteps. Among them was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which advertised a “Juneteenth watermelon salad” in its food court — using another food that’s been weaponized as a racist trope to belittle Black people, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum then dropped it and issued an apology after blowback.
Some experts have argued that the link between the Black community and fried chicken stems from a history in which enslaved Africans turned their skill at frying chickens into successful entrepreneurship. Marcia Chatelain, a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, wrote in The Post in 2019 that although there’s been a long association between fried chicken and African American food culture, the connection has been twisted into a racist trope.
“Despite these positive connotations, fried chicken has also often been used as a prop in popular culture to degrade black people,” wrote Chatelain, who later won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for history. “D.W. Griffith’s 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ included a scene featuring Reconstruction-era black legislators feasting on chicken during a formal proceeding. This pejorative stereotype has remained part of our popular culture — on multiple occasions during his career, peers have made tasteless fried chicken jokes about Tiger Woods, for example.”
About 71 miles north of Bangor, Millinocket is a town of about 4,200 with a population that’s about 98 percent White, according to census data. Less than 1 percent of the population is Black, data shows.
The sign in front of the insurance firm first got attention on Monday, when Millinocket resident Alura Stillwagon posted a photo of the sign to Facebook.
“The racism in Millinocket is real,” she wrote.
Higgins wrote in her letter that she has posted closure signs with “humor to lighten” situations since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She mentioned one example to WCSH in Portland, Maine, in which she thanked all service members for their service on Memorial Day.
“A country now that is going to hell in a hand basket faster than my dog stealing a piece of pizza off the counter … now that I mention pizza, I’m craving it … remember, the more you weigh, the harder you are to kidnap,” she wrote.
But the sign on Juneteenth echoing the racist trope was a different story, town officials said. Steve Golieb, chair of the Millinocket Town Council, said in a statement this week that it was “deeply saddening, disgraceful and unacceptable for any person, business, or organization to attempt to make light of Juneteenth and what it represents for millions of slaves and their living descendants.”
“There is no place in the Town of Millinocket for such a blatant disregard of human decency,” he said.
Since the sign was posted, online critics have left one-star reviews for the business on Google and Yelp, many of them mentioning the Juneteenth note.
“The photo says it all,” one reviewer wrote on Google.
Other insurance companies in Millinocket and around Maine have faced blowback from people thinking they had posted the sign. Even though it is about 150 miles away from Millinocket, the owner of Reed Family Insurance Advisors in Damariscotta, Maine, told WGME his company has been flooded with angry voice mails and reviews.
“We are not affiliated nor associated with it,” Nate Reed said. “It just happens to be the same last name.”
A similar issue has gone on with Millinocket Insurance Agency. Owner Lori Speed told WABI that the phone numbers of the two businesses are almost identical and that it has been inundated with criticism.
“We appreciate what Juneteenth stands for and we are not racist,” Speed wrote on Facebook accompanying a sign of their Juneteenth sign telling customers, “Have a safe and Happy Holiday weekend!”
Golieb told WCSH that the town is now trying to find a way forward, stressing that “an unfortunate incident like this does not characterize who we are as a community.” After noting to the outlet that the business has received death threats, Higgins reiterated her remorse for what’s happened.
“I truly apologize,” she said. “I’m mortified that this is even happening.”
Samantha Cherry, Lateshia Beachum, Jacob Bogage and Jonathan Edwards contributed to this report.