“Juneteenth, it’s whatever … we’re closed,” read the sign outside the Harry E. Reed Insurance Agency, according to a Photo posted on social media. “Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens.”
As the company has been hit by setbacks across the sign, insurance giants Allstate and Progressive announced this week that they are dropping the Maine company after days of national headlines. An Allstate spokesman 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 justice is non-negotiable, and we intervene when individuals violate our Code of Conduct,” the Allstate said in a statement.
Progressive spokesman Jeff Sibel told The Post that the company was “shaken by the sign that was recently put up at the Harry E. Reed Agency” and that Progressive also ended its relationship with the company.
“We are committed to creating an environment where our people feel welcome, valued and respected and expect everyone who represents Progressive to take part in this commitment,” Sibel said in a statement. “The sign is in direct violation of this obligation and does not comply with our company’s core values and code of conduct.”
Melanie Higgins, who helps run the insurance company with her mother, wrote in a Wednesday letter sent to Facebook that she had put up the sign. Higgins apologized “for any misunderstanding or hurt that has arisen out of my usual, snarling office closure signs and contents” and said she had been reprimanded for her actions.
“My only explanation I can give is that I had a death in my family and I just wanted to go home and I quickly wrote the note,” Higgins wrote, identifying himself as multiracial. “I can assure you all, really, I would never in any facet of the word be characterized as a racist. Nor would I intentionally encourage such actions.”
Messages returned to the insurance company were not immediately returned Thursday.
Juneteenth recognizes the events of June 19, 1865, in which people enslaved in Galveston, Tex., found themselves free more than two years after the Declaration of Liberation was signed. The next year marked the first Juneteenth celebration across the country, and it has been a cultural pillar since then with parades, cookouts, art exhibitions and games. Texas was the first state to make Juneteenth an official holidayin 1979.
After Juneteenth was made a federal holiday last year, some black leaders were worried that its historical significance would be included in blowout sales on mattresses or garden furniture – just like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Some companies have been exposed to setbacks on social media for early mistakes. Among them was the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which advertised one “Junetende watermelon salad” in its food court – by using another food that has become a weapon like a racist trope to bring down blacks, according to National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum then dropped it and issued an apology after setback.
Some experts have argued that the connection between black society and fried chicken stems from a story in which enslaved Africans transformed their ability to fry chickens into successful entrepreneurship. Marcia Chatelain, Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University, wrote in The Post in 2019 that even though there has been a long link 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 Pulitzer Prize for History in 2021. “DW Griffith’s celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 , ‘The Birth of a Nation’, included a scene with black legislators from the Reconstruction era partying with chicken during a formal procedure.This derogatory stereotype has remained part of our popular culture – on several occasions during his career, peers have made tasteless fried chicken jokes about Tiger Woodse.g.”
About 71 miles north of Bangor, Millinocket is a city of about 4,200 with a population that is about 98 percent white, according to census data. Less than 1 percent of the population is black, data show.
The sign in front of the insurance company only got attention on Monday when Millinocket resident Alura Stillwagon posted a picture of the sign to Facebook.
“The racism in Millinocket is real,” she wrote.
Higgins wrote in her letter that she has been putting up closing signs with “humor to ease” situations since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. She mentioned an example WCSH in Portland, Maine, where she thanked all service members for their service on Memorial Day.
“A country now that goes to hell in a hand basket, faster than my dog steals a piece of pizza from the counter … now that I mention pizza, I feel like it … remember, the more you weigh, the harder are you kidnapping, ”she wrote.
But the sign on Juneteenth that echoes the racist trope was a different story, city officials said. Steve Golieb, chairman of the Millinocket Town Council, said in a announcement this week that it was “deeply sad, shameful and unacceptable for any person, company or organization to try to shed light on Juneteenth and what it represents for millions of slaves and their living descendants.”
“There is no room in the city of Millinocket for such blatant violation of human decency,” he said.
Since the sign was posted, online critics have left one-star reviews of the company on Google and Yelp, many of them mentioning the Juneteenth note.
“The picture says it all,” one reviewer said wrote on Google.
Other insurance companies in Millinocket and around Maine have been hit by setbacks from people who thought they had put up the sign. Although it’s about 150 miles away from Millinocket, the owner of Reed Family Insurance Advisors in Damariscotta, Maine, WGME his business has been flooded with angry voicemails and reviews.
“We are not affiliated or associated with it,” Nate Reed said. “It happens to be the same last name.”
A similar problem has been going on with the Millinocket Insurance Agency. It told owner Lori Speed WABI that the telephone numbers of the two companies are almost identical and that it has been flooded with criticism.
“We value what Juneteenth stands for and we are not racists,” Speed wrote Facebook accompanied by a sign on their Juneteenth sign telling customers, “Have a safe and happy holiday weekend!”
Golieb told WCSH that the city 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 noticing to the business that the company had received death threats, Higgins reiterated his remorse over what had happened.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I’m horrified that it’s happening at all.”
Samantha Cherry, Lateshia Beachum, Jacob Bogage and Jonathan Edwards contributed to this report.