But as communities and businesses across the country marked the occasion with celebrations and commemorations, an Ikea store in Atlanta completely missed the mark.
It decided to create a special menu for employees featuring “fried chicken, watermelon, mac n’ cheese, potato salad, collard greens, candied yams,” with the intention of “honouring the perseverance of Black Americans and acknowledge the progress yet to be made,” according to an email seen by local media.
However, staff felt far from “honoured” by the culinary tribute, pointing out that the selection included dishes that have historically been used to demean African-Americans through stereotypes.
“You cannot say serving watermelon on Juneteenth is a soul food menu when you don’t even know the history. They used to feed slaves watermelon,” an anonymous employee told local broadcaster CBS 46.
“It caused a lot of people to be upset. People actually wanted to quit. People weren’t coming back to work.”
The stereotype that African Americans are excessively fond of watermelon emerged after slaves won their emancipation during the Civil War.
Free Black people grew and sold watermelons, thereby making the fruit an emblem of their new-found liberty, as the Atlantic reports.
White people in the south responded by transforming it into a racist trope, symbolising the horrifying image they wished to convey that Black people were unclean, lazy and unwanted in society (because watermelon are messy to eat and easy to grow).
Some 20 staff members didn’t show up to work In protest at the Ikea store’s ill-judged move, causing the manager to apologise via internal email for the offence caused.
The message said, in part: “I truly apologise if the menu came off as subjective. It was created with the best of intentions by a few of our co-workers who believed they were representing their culture and tradition with these foods of celebration.”
However, the unnamed employee argued that apologies wouldn’t have been necessary had Black staff been included in the team that chose the dishes, although Ikea insists that they were.
They told indy100 : “There were Black co-workers involved in the creation of the menu. Out of respect for their privacy, we cannot go into more detail, and we take this as an important learning and shared responsibility.”
The following day, the manager told local media that a new, revised menu had been released, still including collard greens, fried chicken, and mac ’n’ cheese – but with the watermelon scrapped.
Another employee reportedly said: "They just delayed the menu by a day, thinking that everybody who was upset stayed home on Juneteenth and wouldn't notice on Sunday, which just added insult to injury."
The company has responded to the fallout with a statement reading: “In addition to offering Juneteenth as one of our paid holidays nationally, our IKEA Atlanta store has recognized Juneteenth with our co-workers for the past four years.
“To honour the day, a lunch menu was created with the best of intentions, including recommendations from Black co-workers.
“We value our co-workers’ voices and changed the menu after receiving feedback that the foods that were selected are not reflective of the deeply meaningful traditional foods historically served as part of Juneteenth celebrations.
“We got it wrong and we sincerely apologise. We are committed to educating ourselves and putting a process in place that will allow us to thoughtfully honor Juneteenth in the future. “