A historical advertisement affixed to the front of a parade float, depicting a caricature of a black child eating a watermelon along with the words "Picaninny Freeze." (Brandon Herring, WNCN)
The controversial parade float as it appeared in a previous July 4th parade. (Hope Mills Area Chamber of Commerce)
HOPE MILLS, N.C. -
Images from the Hope Mills Area Chamber of Commerce show a controversial float carrying watermelons and a derogatory advertisement has been featured in previous Fourth of July parades.
The float initially came under fire when parade watchers took offense to two tractors that flew Confederate battle flags behind them. One of the tractors also pulled a trailer full of watermelons with a sign that read, "WHITE HISTORY MONTH HUG WTE PPL."
A historical advertisement was also affixed to the front of the trailer, depicting a caricature of a black child eating a watermelon along with the words "Picaninny Freeze" and "A pal for your palate."
In southern states, the term "picaninny" was used to refer to the children of black slaves and later black citizens.
According to photos from the Hope Mills Area Chamber of Commerce, this was not the first year the advertisement was used in the July 4th parade.
In 2011, a trailer carrying watermelons also featured the same "Picaninny" sign along with a flag that is an amalgamation of the Confederate battle flag and North Carolina state flag.
Kenny Bullock, who is the director of Parks and Recreation for Hope Mills and is responsible for organizing the parade, said he received complaints about the signs in this year's parade. He said some parade watchers felt the parade unit contained racist overtones.
Parade watcher Alicia Jones said the float was blatantly offensive, saying she was watching the parade with her son and she was surprised by the implied message.
"At that time his innocence was broken, and I had to sit there in the parade and explain to my son what that meant -- what all those signs meant -- at 7 years old," Jones said. "I mean it really caught me off-guard."
Town Commissioner Pat Edwards, however, said she did not know the "Picaninny" sign was in the parade this year. She said no one complained about it in the past.
She said she's familiar with the image used on vintage-style signs, and doesn't find it personally offensive.
"It's not more offensive than Aunt Jemima in the grocery store," Edwards said. "So where do you draw the line?"
Edwards said she wishes the "white history" signs had not been displayed because she understands how some people would be offended.
Bullock said farmer Donnie Spell applied for the entry in the parade. He listed eight to 10 antique tractors and a trailer of watermelons for sale would be included in the parade. There was no mention of the signs, Bullock said.
Bullock said he heard about the signs just before the parade. But he could not find Spell at the time, so he asked Spell's daughter-in-law to ask Spell to take down the signs.
Bullock said he believes the signs were removed and put back up later.
Spell regularly showed his tractors and confederate flags in the town's parades, town commissioner Pat Edwards said.
Bullock said the previous entries were allowed as free speech. However, he said the "White History Month" sign combined with the other elements of the parade entry went too far.
Mayor Jackie Warner said she did not think the parade was the appropriate venue to display the signs and watermelon trailer. She said the parade is intended to be family friendly, and is not meant to be a forum.
People running for political office are discouraged from being in the parade.
Following up on the controversy stirred by the float, town leaders are expected to discuss potential new guidelines for parades at the next Hope Mills commissioners meeting.
"If there's something that needs to be changed, we're going to have to be bold enough to say, 'Hey, that can't fly. That can't go,'" Warner said. "That's something that [is] giving the people that are in charge the authority to make those decisions, but we don't have that in writing. We don't have that as a policy.
"We have to come up with the guidelines."
Without any current policies, Warner said Spell cannot be penalized in any way. She said it may have been a good idea for Bullock to follow-up before the parade, but because there is no policy about parade entries, Bullock did not violate any duty of his job.
"The accountability now lies on making sure this doesn't happen again," Warner said.
Edwards and Warner said they do not think Spell intended to be malicious, just to express his views. They said he has done many good things for the town of Hope Mills.
When reached at his farm Monday, Spell did not have any comment on his parade entry.
Amazon.com sells the "Picaninny" advertisement for $10.74.
Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon.More>>