A business in Maine is facing backlash over a racist sign posted in its window on Juneteenth.
“Juneteenth ~it’s whatever…” the sign said. “We’re closed. Enjoy your fried chicken & collard greens.”
A picture of the sign, taped to the front of the Harry E. Reed Insurance Agency in Millinocket, was shared on Facebook on Monday, June 20, by a resident of the town, Alura Stillwagon, who said “the racism in Millinocket is real.”
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News.
A spokesman for Progressive, which is affiliated with the agency, told NPR that the company is “aware and appalled by the sign.”
“At Progressive, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) are fundamental to our Core Values. 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,” Jeff Sibel told the outlet. “The sign is in direct violation of that commitment and doesn’t align with our company’s Core Values and Code of Conduct.”
Stillwagon’s mother, Lisa Groelly, told her about the sign, NPR reported.
“I had to read it more than once because I thought it was something [my mom] saw on Facebook,” Stillwagon told the outlet. “But when she said it was a business [in town], I was immediately disgusted. People have this idea that Maine isn’t very racist and that it’s pretty liberal. But up north, it’s not like that at all.”
The business’ message was quickly condemned by city officials and residents of the town.
Millinocket Town Council Chair Steve Golieb addressed the matter in a June 21 statement, saying it’s “deeply saddening, disgraceful and unacceptable” for anyone 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,” the statement said.
Negative reviews for the agency also began pouring in on Yelp and Google Reviews.
As of June 22, the agency has two stars on Google. Its Yelp page, which has 84 reviews and one star, displays an alert saying that the business has recently received negative public attention and an influx of new reviews.
“We have temporarily disabled the ability to post here as we work to investigate the content,” Yelp said on the business’ page. “While racism has no place on Yelp and we unequivocally reject racism or discrimination in any form, all reviews on Yelp must reflect an actual first-hand consumer experience (even if that means disabling the ability for users to express points of view we might agree with).”
Most of the business’ current Yelp reviews reference the sign and criticize the business for posting it.
The incident is a reminder that Maine isn’t removed from its history, University of Maine history professor Mary Freeman told the Bangor Daily News.
“The fact that this person could create a sign that does not use an obvious racial slur, but still gets its message across by drawing on these kinds of associations and images that have had a racist association in American culture again shows how Maine is not so far removed from this history,” Freeman told the outlet.
Groelly, the mother of the Facebook user who initially shared photos of the sign, told NPR that she hopes the incident is a wake-up call to residents of the town.
“People need to know their history. They need to realize that there was a lot of suffering and that this holiday is warranted — and it’s needed,” Groelly told the outlet.
Juneteenth, celebrated nationally on June 19, was observed as a federal holiday on June 20 this year. The occasion became a federally recognized holiday in 2021 and commemorates the anniversary of when over 250,000 enslaved Americans in Texas received word in Galveston that they were free by executive decree, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.
The holiday has been celebrated by Black communities in the U.S. since 1865, but only recently became a federal holiday when it received renewed national attention following the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, McClatchy News reported.