But businesses and their marketers have also taken notice of Juneteenth — and black business owners and others say they get it the wrong way.
Juneteenth is a mixture of “19. June,” the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were declared free. It became a federal holiday last year, raising concerns among some black leaders that its historical significance would be co-opted by mattress or patio furniture sales — much like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July — or relegated to the big novelty aisle box stores .
Such concerns are not unfounded: Last month, Walmart introduced the “June Ice Cream” and then quickly apologized for the “June Ice Cream” following backlash on social media. The retailer’s website offering includes Juneteenth paper plates, napkins and party supplies, but also a black tank top modeled by a white woman with the words “Because my ancestors weren’t free in 1976,” an apparently erroneous reference to the American independence in 1776. It’s sold out.
The joy and history of Juneteenth
The Indianapolis Children’s Museum advertised a “June watermelon salad” in its food court, then dropped it and apologized after a violent backlash.
Other underrepresented groups have fretted over marketing missteps, including the “Pride Whopper” unveiled by Burger King in Australia for LGBTQ Pride Month; It featured hamburger buns with either two tops or two bottoms. SKYY Vodka received mixed reviews for its commercial supporting LGBTQ nightlife called “Coming out (Again)”, as did US Bank for advertising on its website “Pride Plans” (“to support you as you seek financial freedom strive to live your life on your own terms”).
Juneteenth, marketers say, poses tricky but predictable pitfalls for national brands: How do they serve consumers hoping to celebrate a culturally significant event without appearing as a mercenary?
“They’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to approach it without getting into any trouble,” said Earnest Perry, who studies cross-cultural communication at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. “They don’t want to abuse a holiday that has significant meaning for black Americans, especially black Americans in the South who grew up understanding what June 16 means and what it means.”
“We can laugh about it. These are glaring failures on social media,” said Joshua DuBois, managing director of market research platform Gauge. He held a webinar Wednesday, titled “Don’t Be That Brand,” for companies preparing for June 16. “But they also illustrate a kind of fundamental disconnect between far too many brands and the customers and communities they aim to serve.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved people in states seceding during the Civil War, but it was largely unenforceable, and many enslavers fled to Texas to continue the practice. On June 19, 1865, the Union Army took control of Texas and outlawed slavery.
The 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, was ratified six months later, and on June 19, 1866, many formerly enslaved people began celebrating that date.
Walmart didn’t respond to a request for comment on its apparent product defects on June 16, but in a statement released in May, the retailer said it would “remove items where appropriate” when it reviews its products on June 16.
“The June 16 holiday is a celebration of freedom and independence,” Walmart said in its statement. “However, we have received feedback that some items have caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.”
For years, black families across the country, but most heavily in Texas and Louisiana, celebrated June 16 with family reunions, events marked with an air of sadness in recognition of years of oppression, said Pearl Walker, the president of I Love Whitehaven Neighborhood and Business association representing a predominantly black portion of Memphis.
She sued her slave owner for reparations and won. Their descendants never knew.
But since the holiday gained state recognition, she says, residents have put much more energy into the celebrations. Whitehaven moved its black restaurant week from around January’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day to the week leading up to June 16 to take advantage of the summer weather and increased interest in the holiday.
In St. Louis, Brenda Hampton opened her own Etsy shop, Black Girl Powerhouse, and a store at a local mall, boosted by early sales of the Juneteenth flag. The shops sell clothing and household decorations designed by female – and mostly black – entrepreneurs.
Juneteenth marks the start of Hampton’s busiest season. Sales go up 25 or 30 percent around the holiday, she said.
“People are all in now,” Hampton said. “That’s something beautiful for me.”
But that demand, she said, also leaves smaller black businesses like hers vulnerable. It can’t compete with Walmart or Amazon — which also stock a line of Juneteenth merchandise — or dollar stores in terms of prices. Flags sell for just $15.95 at Walmart and from $9 at Amazon. Hampton’s is $19.99 on Etsy.
June 16 celebrates “a moment of indescribable joy”: the end of slavery in Texas
Black restaurateurs in Memphis may receive extensive support from consumers during Black Restaurant Week or when selling at local festivals, but much of that revenue, Walker said, is channeled back to white-owned caterers. That weakens the momentum of some programs run by the Whitehaven neighborhood group, which is trying to keep money in the community.
“The money will be made,” Walker said. “People will do what we do. And we have no influence on that. But we have control over what we do with our money.”
And one-off promotions like special ice cream or Juneteenth-related discounts reveal companies’ ignorance of the holiday and their black constituencies, experts say.
“I’m thinking about this and I hope brands and businesses realize that these moments and these holidays mean so much more to the community than just the day ahead,” said Candice Benbow, a theologian studying black feminism, during the webinars. “We’ve been celebrating June 16 for years.”
Businesses that have successfully marketed around the holiday are brands that for years have prioritized relationships with black consumers and commemorated June 16 to acknowledge their diverse clientele rather than sell products.
Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream said Branden Harvey, the editor-in-chief of Good Good Good, a news site dedicated to “good news,” has recognized June 16 for years and uses the day to highlight social justice.
“There are countless ways to understand Juneteenth,” Walker said. “From a creative point of view, I know there will just be more books, more things to look at, read and look at.”
“I don’t think the black community needs people to understand,” she added. “I think the black community has a need for people to respect them and not take advantage of them and not make fun of them.”