A closed sign taped to the door of the Harry E Reed Insurance Agency in Millinocket Monday has raised the ire of local officials and residents for its racist messaging.
“Juneteenth ~it’s whatever… We’re closed. Enjoy your fried chicken and collard greens,” the sign stated in a large font on a piece of white printer paper.
An image of the sign has been shared across the internet since Monday, and the insurance agency has faced criticism on its Facebook page as well as in Yelp and Google reviews all calling out the note.
Monday marked the first time Maine celebrated Juneteenth as an official state holiday. Juneteenth is observed annually on June 19. Gov. Janet Mills signed the holiday into law last year, but it didn’t take effect until this year. It also became a federal holiday last year.
Lisa Groelly lives and works in Millinocket. When her friend first told her about the sign, she said she thought it was a joke. Then, she saw it.
“I was gobsmacked at the stupidity and sheer ignorance,” Groelly said.
Juneteenth honors the date — June 19, 1865 — that Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas, alerting Black people there that slavery had been abolished two years prior. According to University of Maine history professor Mary Freeman, since that date, the day has been celebrated regularly by Black Americans, but more recently has entered the public mainstream.
Groelly snapped a photo of the sign and sent it to her daughter, Alura Stillwagon, who posted it on Facebook. Since then, the image has circulated throughout social media, landing on the front page of Reddit.
“To me, that’s racist. A poor joke is something you say in passing and may not deliver the punchline correctly,” she said. “Or maybe you don’t mean to say something and it comes out wrong — that’s a poor joke, but this, to me is racist.”
Steve Golieb, chair of the Millinocket Town Council, condemned the sign in a statement Tuesday.
“It is 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,” Golieb said. “There is no place in the Town of Millinocket for such a blatant disregard of human decency.”
The sign serves as a reminder that Maine isn’t removed from racism or a racist history, Freeman said.
“You have this perception that Maine is geographically removed and somewhat politically removed from a lot of this history,” she said. “But, if you look at the history, it’s still there, and I think that influences this perception that present-day Maine seems to see itself as somewhat removed from these conflicts over racism.”
Emancipation for Black people in the United States did not instantly come on June 19, 1865, or even two years earlier on Jan. 1, 1863, when President Lincoln presented the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a years-long process and Juneteenth serves as a reminder of that, Freeman said.
In more recent years, Juneteenth has moved beyond Black communities and entered the mainstream in the United States.
While Maine has been and continues to be predominantly white, Black people have always lived in Maine and have experienced forms of discrimination that most people would probably associate with the Jim Crow era of southern United States history, Freeman said.
“That kind of memory tends to downplay the fact that slavery existed in Maine in the colonial period and Maine statehood was tied to the statehood of Missouri,” she said. “Even though Maine was admitted as a free state, Missouri came in as a slave state and paved the way for the expansion of slavery into more territory.”
When it comes to the words written on the sign, Freeman said the relation of eating collard greens and fried chicken on Juneteenth draws on stereotypes that have been present in American culture since the 19th century and probably before.
“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 said.
The listed owner of the insurance agency, Karen Hansen, did not respond to Bangor Daily News requests for comment.
On Tuesday, the agency was listed as open as of 8 a.m. By the afternoon, it was listed as “permanently closed” on Google. It’s unclear if the business is really closed.
Correction: A previous version of this story had an incorrect date on the featured photo.