Maine insurance coverage company faces on-line backlash after racist Juneteenth signal

Google Earth view of the Reed Agency in Millinocket, Maine.

Google Earth

An insurance agency in Millinocket, Maine, is facing backlash online after a photo circulated on Facebook Monday of a sign on the store’s door that read, “June – it’s whatever… We’re closed.”

The picture of the sign at Harry E. Reed Insurance Agency, a subsidiary of national insurer Progressive, was originally shared by a Facebook user named Alura Stillwagon with the caption, “Racism in Millinocket is real.” The original post was shared more than 200 times, although a similar post by another user was shared more than 10,000 times.

“I’m not angry. Anger gets you nowhere. I’m just deeply disappointed,” another Facebook user, Ken Anderson, commented on the post. “In this store, in the companies that let this store broker their products, and in the city of Millinocket, in the state of Maine, and across the damn country. Deeply disappointed. Why? Because I know we can do better. But we we don’t try. And that’s the part that cuts the deepest.

For many companies, Monday marked the end of observance of June 19, a federal holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, when Union Army soldiers arrived in Texas and more than 250,000 blacks who remained enslaved even after Emancipation was signed proclamation proclaimed slavery in 1863, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The insurance agency did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment, but Melanie Higgins told News Center Maine she was the employee who put up the sign and apologized.

“I would never intentionally hurt anyone and I would never intentionally damage my mother’s business. She had nothing to do with it,” Higgins said. “I sincerely apologize.”

Ever since the sign’s image circulated online, people have taken to online review site Yelp to condemn the insurance agency, prompting Yelp to disable users’ ability to post on the company’s site.

“This company has received increased publicity lately, leading to an influx of people to post their views on this page. As such, we’ve temporarily disabled the ability to post here while we work to investigate the content,” reads a warning from the Harry E. Reed Insurance Agency Yelp page. “While racism has no place on Yelp, and we unequivocally reject racism or discrimination in any form, all reviews on Yelp must reflect an actual, first-hand consumer experience (even if that means disabling the ability for users to express views that we might agree with).”

The agency received nearly 90 Yelp reviews — mostly one-star ones — with many posters condemning the insurance agency as “racist.”

Jeff Sibel, a spokesman for Progressive, said in a statement: “We are aware of and appalled by the sign that was recently put up at the Harry E Reed Agency and are ending our relationship with the agency.”

“At Progressive, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is fundamental to our core values. We are committed to creating an environment where our associates feel welcome, valued and respected, and expect that anyone who represents Progressives participating in this sign is in direct violation of that commitment and at odds with core values and our company’s code of conduct,” Sibel said in a statement.

Millinocket City Council Chairman Steve Golieb released a statement on Tuesday denouncing the sign.

“It is deeply saddening, shameful and unacceptable for any person, corporation or organization to attempt to downplay June 16 and what it represents for millions of slaves and their living descendants,” Golieb wrote. “There is no place in the town of Millinocket for such a blatant disregard for human decency.”

President Joe Biden and the state of Maine each signed bills in June 2021 recognizing June 16 as a federal and state holiday.

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