T-shirts? Ice cream? Retailers cash in on Juneteenth

Retailers and marketers have been quick to commemorate Juneteenth with an avalanche of merchandise from ice cream to T-shirts to party cups.

But many are getting backlash on social media for what critics say undermines the day, designated as a federal holiday last year to honor the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. A search for Juneteenth items among online sellers like Amazon and JC Penney produced everything from toothpicks with pan-African flags to party plates and balloons.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, apologized last month after getting slammed for a Juneteenth ice cream flavor – swirled red velvet and cheesecake – under its store label Great Value. Walmart said it is reviewing its product range and will remove items “as appropriate.” As of Friday, Walmart’s site was still offering lots of T-shirts and party plates.

Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum removed a Juneteenth watermelon salad from its menu and issued a mea culpa earlier this week. In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the museum blamed a lapse in vendor oversight, noting the label and salad were not reviewed by museum staff.

“We are an imperfect institution, but we are committed to improvement and will work tirelessly to regain your trust,” the museum wrote on its Facebook page.

The backlash comes as companies promised after the police killing of George Floyd in May of 2020 to no longer stay silent and vowed to take an active role in confronting and educating customers and employees on systemic racism. According to the preliminary results of a survey by Mercer of 200 employers, 33% are offering Juneteenth as a paid holiday to their staff. That’s up from 9% last year in a survey of more than 400 companies conducted shortly before Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday.

At the same time, many have cashed in on a holiday that Black Americans have observed since June 19, 1865, when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, in alignment with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Many experts believe that if retailers and other marketers plan to recognize the day, they should either sell merchandise from Black-owned businesses or invest in campaigns that would help Black communities. Amazon. for instance, does have a Black-owned business storefront that’s live all year-round for customers who want to support and shop Black-owned businesses selling on the site.

“This is a serious and reflective moment – I am excited and grateful for the recognition,” said Ramon Manning, chairman of the board at Emancipation Park Conservancy, a nonprofit organization aimed at restoring the park, which was purchased in 1872 by a group of former enslaved people to commemorate the anniversary of their emancipation.

“However, I feel like it is also brought back everybody else out of the woodwork who are opportunists more so than folks who are looking at the history of this country and looking at where a group of people have come from,” he added.

AP Photo / Jae C. Hong

A Juneteenth T-shirt is for sale in Los Angeles, Friday, June 17, 2022. Retailers and marketers from Walmart to Amazon have been quick to commemorate Juneteenth with an avalanche of merchandise from ice cream to T-shirts to party favors. (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

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