How one Black leader sees trademarking Juneteenth as protection of Black culture

There was a wave of anger from Black Twitter users last month when Walmart released its Juneteenth-themed ice cream, with a flavor created by the New York-based company Balchem.

Spotting a trademark symbol for Juneteenth on the product’s label, many on social media criticized both companies for trying to capitalize off Black culture. But what got missed in the uproar was a simple fact: Someone else had claimed the term before any of the major companies could.

That person was Mario Bowler Sr., an assistant director at his alma mater, Lincoln University, a historically Black university in Pennsylvania.

When Biden declared Juneteenth a national holiday last year, Bowler said one of his first thoughts was that the holiday would be exploited by those taking advantage of it with “ill intention,” which led him to apply for a trademark.

Bowler, who had been attending Black business conventions for years and toyed with establishing a business around Black food and culture, filed a trademark application for “Juneteenth Joy” last summer. Not only does the family-owned business sell gourmet popcorn, candles and mints that symbolize the history and collective achievements of Black people, Juneteenth Joy also aspires to give back to the community by scholarships and university projects for future Black leaders, while shouting out milestones like new businesses or book releases on social media.

Mario Bowler with his wife, Stephanie, and their son, Mario Jr.Courtesy Mario Bowler

“We wanted to take a protective stance — establish the business, establish a brand where we could recycle dollars and also professionally develop some scholarships for students who want to attend HBCUs,” said Bowler, whose wife and son also graduated from historically Black colleges.

Ticora Davis, a trademark attorney and founder of The Creator’s Law Firm, said that trademark symbols are used to indicate that a company has filed a trademark application, or that they intend to file one. While it is not clear if Balchem ​​shared a license agreement with Walmart’s Great Value brand for the Juneteenth ice cream, Balchem’s trademark application had been blocked by Bowler, who was already in the process of trademarking “Juneteenth Joy,” she explained on Instagram.

Companies can still display a trademark symbol for their products even if their application is still being processed, which may be why the ice cream has a trademark symbol despite being blocked by Bowler’s existing filing, Davis told NBC News.

Bowler and Balchem ​​are not the only entities to file trademark applications involving the word Juneteenth. According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, dozens of other filings using the term exist, including “Juneteenth Everyday,” “Big Poppa Juneteenth,” and “Juneteenth Music Entertainment.”

However, most of the companies with Juneteenth trademark applications seem to be Black-owned businesses, as opposed to Balchem, which prompted some like Davis to express concern that Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream is an example of a company profiting off of Black culture.

The Black community is “often looked at by large corporations as cash cows,” Davis told NBC News. “If someone can exclusively have control over a particular product that obviously is going to be marketed primarily to the African-American community, that is going to be viewed as a huge financial incentive.”

Following the backlash online from Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream that highlighted Balchem’s attempt to trademark the name, Balchem ​​abandoned its trademark application on May 24 using an express abandonment application.

When Walmart pulled its product from the shelves in May, the company said it was reviewing the assortment and would “remove items as appropriate.” NBC News made multiple requests for comment to the Balchem ​​Corp. and for further comment from Walmart but did not immediately hear back from either company.

Many online said Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream — swirled red velvet and cheesecake — was curiously similar to a flavor by Creamalicious, a Black-owned ice cream brand that also carries a red velvet and cheesecake flavor labeled “Right as Rain.”

Creamalicious founder and chef Liz Rogers incorporates four generations of Southern recipes for unique ice cream flavors that include “Slap Yo’ Momma Banana Pudding,” “Aunt Poonie’s Caramel Pound Cake” and “Porch Light Peach Cobbler.”

Rogers addressed the controversy surrounding Walmart’s Juneteenth-themed ice cream on Rushion McDonald’s “Money Making Conversations Master Class,” a program that features successful celebrities, entrepreneurs and influencers. Rogers said she was unaware that Walmart was making a Juneteenth ice cream and that there was no collaboration in place between Creamalicious and Walmart to make the product. She also said that her “Right as Rain” ice cream flavor was different from Walmart’s Juneteenth flavor because her ice cream contained chocolate chunks.

“I’m not involved in anything that they do as it relates to the Great Value brand, so this was not a joint venture deal,” Rogers told McDonald. “This had nothing to do with me.”

After Walmart pulled their ice cream from its shelves, Rogers said she received “thousands of messages, emails, letters, just people reaching out, just really wanting to be supportive of this brand.”

Ultimately, Davis called Walmart’s Juneteenth ice cream “tone deaf.”

Davis surmised that Walmart would not have caught so much backlash had it not used Juneteenth in the product label and if it had used proceeds from the ice cream to support a related cause, like Ben & Jerry’s, which donates proceeds to numerous charities through the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, including Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp.

Davis said Walmart “could have used this as an opportunity to support a community.” One example Davis provided is scholarships, which Bowler said he plans to help fund for Black students.

Although Balchem ​​does not own the trademark for Juneteenth, Bowler said it poses the question of what would happen if it did. Now that Juneteenth Joy is in the final stage of the trademarking process, Bowler said his website will launch soon. He also said that he envisions people enjoying his products while “acknowledging our ancestors in the proper light.”

“To me, it’s still a big step in the right direction and we still have a long way to go,” Bowler said, “But we’re hoping that with this brand, we’re not going to forget the history, but we ‘re trying to commemorate and celebrate the movement forward.”

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