Juneteenth : Spotlight Interview with Ms. Pat

Tracy Carter: Today we have with us Ms. Pat Riley, she's a strong force in our community who serves as director of program services at a major provider of services for survivors of domestic violence. She is also a dedicated board member for Empowherment that comes to us with a wealth of advocacy experience, and today will be talking with us about Juneteenth, a very important day for African-Americans in the United States that is celebrated on June 19th. She will share with us what this day signifies, as well as some experience she has had surrounding the history of Juneteenth. How are you today, Miss Pat?

Pat Riley: I'm well, thank you. I'm very well.

TC: Great! And before we begin, I'd like to thank you for being here today. I must also admit and share that for a very long time I was very unaware of what Juneteenth was. In all honesty, although I'm now only a few years away from what would be considered middle aged, I was a bit embarrassed and disappointed that as an African-American young woman, my first time hearing about Juneteenth was as I was entering adulthood because it was not something that I read in the history books in school or was taught in the classroom. How would you explain what Juneteenth is and its significance to someone who isn't familiar with what it represents?

PR: Well, I'm glad you had your introduction about your knowledge of Juneteenth, because I really would like to say that I share a lot of that experience. It was never something that was taught as I grew up. I grew up north in Philadelphia, and then went to college in New York. And so, for me coming here to the south in 1993 and I'll tell you very candidly, it was some years after that that I heard of Juneteenth. June 19th,1863 was the day that a Union army general came into Galveston, Texas, and told the slaves there that they were free. Well, this was really kind of astounding because though happy they were that they were now free of slavery and of bondage, what they learned was that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years, in fact, two and a half years before this day. Slaves had been freed by Abraham Lincoln due to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation back in January of 1861. So here in June 1863, that was when these slaves in Texas learned of their freedom. Since then, and especially around the southern states, but specifically in Texas, they began to celebrate that day as the Emancipation Day, as the Freedom Day, as the day that all slaves were free. It took that long for the union soldiers to get to Texas, because if you remember your history, the civil war was still being fought and Abraham Lincoln did what he knew to be right in signing the Emancipation Proclamation, but the war continued. Union soldiers did not get to this area of the South, fighting the war against the confederate soldiers all through that time. When they were able to declare the war was over and the slaves were free; this day became known as the freedom day. So, it is a very important day in the history for African-Americans. If you look back at slavery and when slaves began to come over from Africa, it was two hundred years before that, because we are talking 1619. That was the beginning of the trans-Atlantic shipping of slaves to this country from Africa. So, they set sail and came to those ports in Virginia and other states along the coast of this country; this is when slavery began. Today we are at 400 years after slavery began and it is just significant to me that especially women are still trying to free themselves of the bondage that they are in when they are in an abusive relationship. Fleeing domestic violence to come to a safe place and to hopefully arrive at our domestic violence center or those DV centers in Florida and even around the country, freeing themselves of that bondage. So, specifically speaking to black folks and being in bondage, you know, you could still say that psychologically, sometimes socially, economically, we still sometimes feel that we are still in bondage. So, to celebrate this day is politically very important, to remember our history, but also to acknowledge our present, and sometimes, again, like I said, we may still feel that we are in a sort of bondage.

TC: Absolutely, it's definitely a very significant day, and as you said, even now there's some lasting effects of slavery psychologically.

PR: Sure, so true.

TC: So a lot of times there can be mental enslavement that is a result of what occurred.

PR: Yes indeed.

TC: So this is definitely an important thing to celebrate. How would you say Juneteenth is different from Independence Day or July 4th?

PR: So if we remember our history and again, I’m not a historian and history was not my strong suit when I was going to school. I like it now. I do. I think I'm a political junkie more than a historian, but, you know, when you remember your history it’s good for your political knowledge today.

TC: Yes. (both chuckle)

PR: So, if you remember our history, you will remember that the war that was fought to free us from, and I say, us kind of euphemistically, but to free Americans from the rule of the British. When this country was first developed, there were those who came here from Europe, primarily from England, and so we had as a monarch ruling us from afar, a British monarch. So, that war was fought, and the independence that was then declared was really to set us free and apart from British rule. The document (the Declaration of Independence) that was signed in 1776 that declared that we were free said that in terms of every American, and at that point all American citizens, but remembering 1700s and remembering what was happening in history, you still had slavery. You still had Blacks who had come over from Africa, those who were born in America but into slavery, not really being able to be a part of that independence because the people of African-American heritage or that had come from those lines were not considered free in this country.

PR: So, the independence, the freedom that was kind of melted out for those folks who were of citizenship to this country, American citizens, white citizens, right, they were able to say that they were free from British rule. That independence was celebrated on July 4th. So, July 4th as an Independence Day, when you look at it historically, was not necessarily meant for black folk, that's the difference. Because, we were still in bondage and throughout that time slavery was still going on; even though we had black folks that fought in that war, right. You had people especially up north who were freed men who joined the service and fought in that war of independence. They had great hopes for that war that when and if we were set apart and set free from England, that it would include us too. I think there is something around the fact that we were considered, and I say we for black folks, considered three fifths of a man, right. So, not being considered a full person, then you could not take in all of the rights of a free person on July 4,1776. So that celebration is, yes, a celebration for this country, but personally, when black folks look at Independence Day, they're not looking at that day historically as the day that we were free because we weren't.

TC: Exactly, and the fact that Juneteenth was two and a half years later, I think it is important that people do understand that, and that there is a distinction and that people understand why Juneteenth needs to be celebrated.

PR: But you know, even when you talk about two and a half years late, you're saying something about our stance in the