Brandy Goodner first learned about Juneteenth when she was 14. Although she didn’t begin celebrating the holiday — a commemoration of the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas were told that they had been freed two years earlier — until she was an adult, Ms. Goodner now parties like she’s making up for lost time.
“I’m a little over the top,” said Ms. Goodner, 41, who lives in Indianapolis. “I like a little extra pizazz, some details, things of that sort.”
In 2020, seeing an opening in the market for Juneteenth decorations and party favors — the few she found on Etsy were never exactly what she had in mind — Ms. Goodner decided to create her own line of Juneteenth party supplies.
Last year, she started her own party-supply company, We Celebrate Black, and began offering her goods online. Through word of mouth she started to sell banners, paper cups and plastic cutlery with zigzag decorations in yellow, black and red, for the Pan-African flag, a symbol of Black liberation in the United States. She sold napkins designed with a closed fist on the top, a symbol of resistance and defiance.
“I didn’t realize the need that was there,” she said. “Last year was very successful, but I will say, this year there was a shift.”
Although this is the second year that Juneteenth is being observed as a federal holiday, it’s the first time that manufacturers had enough lead time to prepare products. (Last year, President Biden signed legislation designating Juneteenth a “legal public holiday” on June 17, just two days before the holiday.)
In the merchandising frenzy, big-box stores like Walmart, Dollar Tree and Party City have ginned up Juneteenth party plates, vinyl tablecloths and napkins. Some of it has caught the wrong sort of attention on social media for its seeming tone-deafness.
A beer koozie was singled out for particular ridicule for its internet-speak messaging (“It’s the Freedom for Me”), and consumers also recoiled at Great Value-branded red-velvet-and-cheesecake-swirl Juneteenth ice cream that Walmart stocked on their shelves.
“It’s like, who asked for this?” Ms. Goodner said.
Twitter users called the items tone-deaf and bristled at the obvious pandering to Black consumers by a company that only recently stopped locking up Black beauty care products in glass cases, after being called out for racial discrimination.
In a statement on Thursday, Walmart apologized for some of its Juneteenth party supplies, adding that it was reviewing its assortment and would remove inappropriate items as needed.
“Juneteenth holiday marks a commemoration and celebration of freedom and independence,” the company said. “However, we received feedback that a few items caused concern for some of our customers and we sincerely apologize.” (It later confirmed that the Great Value ice cream had been removed.)
This year, sales at We Celebrate Black have fallen by 38 percent, Ms. Goodner said. To close the gap, she began to sell her party supplies on Walmart.com as a third-party vendor. She added the words “Black owned” to the description of her items on the site.
“I think there were so many larger retailers that were on the bandwagon that it kind of confused my customer base to a certain degree,” Ms. Goodner said.
The designation of Juneteenth as a federal holiday last year brought the date and its significance more widespread attention than at perhaps any point in its history. Americans do not get new federal holidays easily. It was only after a 15-year campaign that President Ronald Reagan signed legislation, in 1983 designating the third Monday in January Martin Luther King’s Birthday.
When President Biden made June 19 the nation’s 11th federal holiday, many felt the move was in response to the social unrest of 2020. But activists like Opal Lee, who, at age 89, walked from her home in Fort Worth to Washington to petition to make Juneteenth a national holiday, have been campaigning for the change for decades.
Although the holiday may have received the highest form of federal recognition only last year, it is a date that African Americans have acknowledged for more than 150 years.
Juneteenth recognizes the day that Union troops presented an order informing enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years earlier. Traditionally, it is celebrated by gathering in a way best described as a warm family reunion. Normally, there is barbecue, a nod to the custom of smoking a hog, and music is played. To symbolize the plight of Black Americans, red drinks and foods, like watermelon, red beans and rice and red soda, are served.
According to Kelly E. Navies, an oral historian at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Juneteenth is not just a party, but “a reflection and a meditation on the history and struggle in this country.”
“At the end of slavery, many of us had been torn from our families, so we had to recreate communities,” she said. “Juneteenth does that.”
For Monique Kerr, We Celebrate Black’s Juneteenth offerings allowed her to have decorations at her family’s celebration for the first time, after a lifetime of celebrating a tradition that was passed down by her grandparents. The Kerrs normally “book a shelter at the park and make a day of family fun, eating, horseback riding, fishing and swimming” at Fort Harrison State Park, near Indianapolis.
“We celebrated Juneteenth in style in the middle of a pandemic,” Ms. Kerr said. “These products are needed in a world that has their own idea of what we as a people stand for.”
Ms. Goodner is still excited by the party supplies she can offer people through We Celebrate Black. She does not plan on slowing down, even if she has to go toe to toe with other, much larger retailers. She said that she aimed to remain steadfast, as she was taught that Black Americans do.
“An awful lot of Black people, regardless of it being a national holiday, we were going to celebrate Juneteenth,” Ms. Goodner said. “We were going to have this good news with or without that designation, because we always do.”
Michael Corkery contributed reporting.