“Juneteenth is bullshit…we’re closed,” read the sign outside the Harry E. Reed insurance agency, according to a photo posted to social media. “Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens.”
While the company has faced backlash over the brand, insurance giants Allstate and Progressive announced this week that 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 has terminated its contract with the Harry E. Reed agency, which Allstate described as an “independent agent.”
“Our commitment to inclusive diversity and equity is non-negotiable, and we take action when individuals violate our code of conduct,” an Allstate statement said.
Progressive spokesman Jeff Sibel told the Post that the company is “appalled by the recently posted sign at the Harry E. Reed agency” and that Progressive is also ending its relationship with the company.
“We are committed to creating an environment in which our employees feel welcomed, valued and respected and expect everyone representing Progressive to participate in this commitment,” Sibel said in a statement. “The sign is in direct violation of this commitment and does not align with our company’s core values and code of conduct.”
Melanie Higgins, who helps run the insurance company with her mother, wrote in a letter posted on Facebook on Wednesday that she posted the sign. Higgins apologized “for any misunderstanding or injury resulting from my usual and devious office closing signs and content” and said she had been reprimanded for her actions.
“My only explanation I can offer is that I had a death in my family and just wanted to get home and quickly wrote the note,” Higgins wrote, identifying as multiracial. “I can assure you all, sincerely, that I would never be called a racist in any facet of the word. Nor would I deliberately incite such acts.
Messages left with the insurance company were not immediately returned Thursday.
Juneteenth acknowledges the events of June 19, 1865, when enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. The following year marked the first statewide celebration of June 19, and it has been a cultural mainstay ever since, with parades, barbecues, art exhibits and games. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth a holiday, in 1979.
After Juneteenth became a federal holiday last year, some black leaders feared its historic significance would be co-opted by massive sales of mattresses or patio furniture — not unlike Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Some companies have faced backlash on social media for their first missteps. Among them was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which advertised a “June 19 watermelon salad” in its food court – using another weaponized food as a racist trope to demean black people, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum then dropped it and issued an apology after the blowback.
Some experts have argued that the connection between the black community and fried chicken stems from a story in which enslaved Africans turned their skill in frying chickens into successful entrepreneurship. Marcia Chatelain, professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University, wrote in The Post in 2019 that although there has been a long association between fried chicken and African American food culture , the link has been twisted into a racist trope.
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“Despite these positive connotations, fried chicken has also often been used as a prop in popular culture to degrade black people,” wrote Chatelain, who went on to win the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for History. DW Griffith’s 1915 “Birth of a Nation” included a scene of black Reconstruction-era legislators feasting on chicken during an official proceeding.This pejorative stereotype is still part of our culture. popular – on several occasions during his career, peers made tasteless fried chicken jokes about Tiger Woods, for example.
Which came first: the fried chicken or the racist trope?
About 71 miles north of Bangor, Millinocket is a town of about 4,200 with a population about 98% white, according to census data. Less than 1% of the population is black, according to the data.
The sign in front of the insurance company first attracted attention on Monday, when Millinocket resident Alura Stillwagon posted a photo of the sign on Facebook.
“Racism in Millinocket is real,” she wrote.
Higgins wrote in her letter that she has posted closure signs with “humor to alleviate” situations since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She mentioned an example at WCSH in Portland, Maine, in which she thanked all service members for their service on Memorial Day.
“A country now going to hell in a hand cart faster than my dog stealing a piece of pizza off the counter… now that I’m talking about pizza, I crave it… remember, the more you weigh, the more you are hard to kidnap,” she wrote.
But the June 19 sign echoing the racist trope was another story, city officials said. Millinocket City Council President Steve Golieb said in a statement this week that it is “deeply saddening, shameful and unacceptable for any person, business or organization to attempt to shed light on Juneteenth and what it means to millions of slaves and their living descendants.
“There is no place in the town of Millinocket for such blatant disregard for human decency,” he said.
Since the panel was posted, online reviewers have left one-star reviews for the company on Google and Yelp, with many mentioning the Juneteenth rating.
“The photo says it all,” wrote one reviewer on Google.
Other insurance companies in Millinocket and Maine have faced people who believe they posted the sign. Despite being about 150 miles from Millinocket, the owner of Reed Family Insurance Advisors in Damariscotta, Maine, told WGME his business has been inundated with voicemails and angry reviews.
“We are not affiliated or associated,” said Nate Reed. “It happens to be the same last name.”
A similar problem occurred with Millinocket Insurance Agency. Owner Lori Speed told WABI that the phone numbers for the two companies are almost identical and he was 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 holiday weekend!”
Golieb told WCSH that the city is now trying to find a way forward, pointing out that “an unfortunate incident like this does not characterize who we are as a community.” After noting at the outlet that the company had received death threats, Higgins reiterated his remorse for what happened.
“I really apologize,” she said. “I’m mortified that this is even happening.”
Samantha Cherry, Lateshia Beachum, Jacob Bogage and Jonathan Edwards contributed to this report.