The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis on Friday invited people to its upcoming “Juneteenth Jamboree,” promising live performances, a showcase of local artists and other activities. In the Facebook invitation, staff did not mention a dish the museum was selling to mark the June 19 holiday: a “Juneteenth Watermelon Salad.”
A couple of hours after the museum published the Facebook post, a Black woman replied in the comments section with a photo of the salad sitting in the museum’s food court. “So y’all decided ‘hey let’s celebrate by perpetuating offensive stereotypes.’ Y’all really thought this was a good idea?”
Not long after, the museum conceded it was a bad idea. A spokesperson told The Washington Post in an email that the museum had apologized, permanently removed the salad from the food court menu and recommitted to its decades-long effort toward diversity and inclusion. In an apology posted to its website Saturday, the museum said that, although serving the watermelon salad was based on staff members’ family traditions, it acknowledges “the negative impact that stereotypes have on Black communities.”
“We deeply regret the hurt and the pain that the food offering in our food court has caused, and we apologize. It is unacceptable that this took place in our museum,” the spokesperson told The Post.
Since the Jim Crow era, watermelons have been weaponized as a racist trope to belittle Black people, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Before being twisted into a stereotype, watermelons symbolized Black people’s self-sufficiency and freedom following Emancipation, emerging from the fact that many formerly enslaved people grew and sold them to make a living. Threatened by this, some White Southerners co-opted the symbol, mutating it into the racist trope that endures to this day, the museum said.
“To shame black watermelon merchants, popular ads and ephemera, including postcards, pictured African Americans stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon,” according to a 2018 article from the museum.
Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday last year, is tied to the emancipation of enslaved people. A portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth,” the holiday celebrates June 19, 1865, the day roughly 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, announcing that more than 250,000 enslaved people in the state had been freed more than two years earlier when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a day that has come to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States.
“Juneteenth marks our country’s second independence day,” a 2019 article from the National Museum of African American History and Culture explained.
Several of the hundreds of people commenting on the post by the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis said they were offended by the museum marring the holiday, which is also known as Jubilee Day, with a still-potent racist trope.
The museum has responded several times since the woman first highlighted the watermelon salad. Two hours after she posted the photo, the museum replied in the Facebook comments section.
“There should have been a label explaining the history and meaning behind this menu item and it should not have been on the shelf before that label was ready,” it wrote. “We understand how this appears with no context and we apologize.”
The reply included such a label titled “Honoring Juneteenth,” which read, “Red food are the most prominent features of Juneteenth menus: red velvet cake, strawberry, watermelon, red soda.” Then there’s a quote attributed to Natelegé Whaley, a cultural journalist: “Red is a color that evokes cultural memory of bloodshed by our enslaved ancestors through the transatlantic enslaved person trade.” The museum’s reply has been edited to remove the image of the label. The quote is from Adrian Miller, a culinary historian who made the statement in an article written by Whaley.
The woman who made the initial complaint, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post, replied, saying she knows certain foods have been traditionally served to celebrate Juneteenth but asked why the museum hadn’t chosen one of the others.
“Nice backpedaling but It’s extremely tone deaf to not realize that many of your patrons possibly (and do) find this offensive due to stereotypes that still currently exist,” she wrote, adding: “A watermelon salad to represent the blood of my ancestors. Oh yay!”
She drove home the point in a separate post on her Facebook page.
“This country and these companies keep giving us everything except what we want,” she wrote. “Reparations is out of the question but here’s a Juneteenth watermelon salad.”