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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 community. That it also says that we were not held in high regard. But that it also says that any time we get to celebrate anything, we're going to celebrate it because, yes, now declared free by this general to the folks in Texas is a big deal. But, when you look at 1861 and look at the Emancipation Proclamation, most folks will say, well, wasn't that the day? Well, we're not celebrating that day, are we? So, here we are celebrating our freedom two and a half years later. What does that say? Again, when you look at our stance in the community and our importance or lack of importance to others at that time and maybe even now. But it was and is now significant to us. I think as Black folk we grasp; we hold on to anything that will uplift us, anything that will have us feel good about ourselves. So, this is a day that we chose to celebrate, to commemorate, and even two and a half years late, you know, we're still saying it's a good day. It was a great day. So, when in other communities, when states start to recognize Juneteenth (a combination of June and the date 19) as a commemorative date, a holiday, you know, it's a big deal. It was as big a deal, I think, as Martin Luther King's birthday being celebrated, right, and the holiday being represented in the parades and events like that. My understanding of the tribute to Juneteenth was the same in terms of parades and fairs, and I read about rodeos and picnics and barbecues and family reunions and all of those kinds of things as a celebration for that day, and that's wonderful. That's a great thing, and we need any day that we can have that's a good day to share something positive. I just want it to be significant and just relevant that we also look at the fact that it was two and a half years late.

TC: Absolutely. To remember that and that it’s a big deal that for that long, not knowing that you're able to be a free person, and still being in bondage and not having access to the same rights. So that is very significant, and you touched on this a little bit, but I just want to ask you, why do you believe it's important to continue celebrating it, and why do you believe that it's been gaining prominence in recent years?

PR: Well, you know, when I did a little of the research and finding out that in 2002, that was when more states, in fact, by 2002 eight states had officially recognized Juneteenth and then four years later, 2006, 15 states began to recognize the day. So, in the 2000s when it came to a more national attention, but national attention is state by state and not the whole country. So, Texas had been the first to recognize it and they started recognizing it, probably in 1863, right. After that, their celebration continued, all these years later, Texas was the first to recognize it in 1980 as a state holiday, but they were participating in ceremonial observance of the holiday ever since June 19, 1863, because it was so important.

TC: Right

PR: But it took all of this time and by 1980 the state of Texas recognized it as a full state holiday, and then you had more states in the years 2000 and onward begin to recognize it as a holiday too and to do the ceremonial observance of Juneteenth. By 2019 forty seven states and the District of Columbia recognized Juneteenth. OK, recognized it. That doesn't mean it's a state or national holiday yet, but we are getting there. There still are 3 states who do not recognize Juneteenth at all.

TC: Right, you recognize it, but it's not honored as something that is a state holiday.

PR: Exactly, so each state began to understand its importance and then again, try to acknowledge it as ceremonial day and then a state holiday. So, what I think has happened up to this point is, there's a reckoning, and with all of the racial unrest of last year, of course, there has been more attention and understanding of Black culture. I think last year it came to significance when President Trump was urged to not to do a speech on June 19, and he had to be told, of course, by those in his office that this was, you know, a holiday, maybe not a state holiday for all states in this union, but a holiday for many states. So, he then said, well, ok, “I'll postpone my speech because of Juneteenth”, but guess what? He said he was the one to tell folks about Juneteenth because he stated many probably never heard of it. You know, that was something that he said, he wanted to be praised for that.

TC: Yes, I remember that.

PR: Remember? So, you know, now you have the prominence of Juneteenth recognized by this president, but in such a backhanded way and manner that was, I think, disrespectful to us. But that wasn't new to the things that he has done and said about us anyway. So, yeah you have more white folk now learning about this day, and so for me, like I said, coming to Florida in the 1990s and in 2000 as more states began to recognize Juneteenth, that's when it too came to my knowledge, right. I thought originally well this must be something that's only celebrated down south, I've never heard of it up north. Then when I learned that people up north were also celebrating it, it had come to that kind of attention and is now being looked at as something that is important. So, I think with the racial upheaval of last year, this year it is significant that folks will know about it and will be able to celebrate it together, not just black folk, but black and white folks. I also think that's significant, and anytime and anywhere that we can recognize what has happened in the black community, historically, it's important.

PR: There are many shows that I have now noted on TV that are talking about the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was bombed.

TC: Yes.

PR: ...and rioted, and hundreds of people killed and made homeless. The folks who lived in Tulsa, who grew up in Tulsa afterwards, never even heard about that. So, that history coming to light and that's coming to light now because, again, the (Black Wall Street of Tulsa, OK) was something I had never heard of until last year. So, knowing that many of the documentaries that are going to come on TV in these next couple of weeks, in fact, I just saw one on 60 Minutes related to our history. So, whenever our history can come to light, and it be clear, and it is the truth about what has happened to us, that is important and that is significant, and we can't forget, you know, we cannot forget our history. We can't forget where we come from, and when we're celebrating these times, when we're celebrating a day of freedom for us, that that's important. So, that's why I think it should be celebrated, commemorated, honored, and remembered any time that we can do any of our history that way.

TC: I would agree and also for people who are not African-American to understand all of our history, not just what's written in textbooks, but they get a better understanding of all of our history, the more that we celebrate and the more that it's talked about.

PR: Exactly, and especially too when it's not written in our history books.

TC: Yes.

PR: Right, and so, as you said and as I noted as well, for me growing up, Juneteenth was not written in the history books and whether it is now will be important. Is it now in the history books taught to our children today? And if it's not, what can we do in the kind of commemoration of this day to make sure that it does get to the history books and that it is not forgotten?

TC: I agree. I agree, and what are some of the memories that you have surrounding the history and celebration of this particular day?

PR: So, that's an interesting question. I laugh when I hear that because, again, because it is new to me in the time that I've been here in Florida. We're talking like in the years 2000 and personally to speak about celebrating it, I can't. I just have to be honest with you that it is not something that I could look back on and say we did that on Juneteenth. I can't even think back to any kinds of activities that happened on that day in the community, but I am sure that they did. Again, for me, it was typically on a day that I had to work. So, what is significant for me this year is being in a company that has a black CEO and president, who has made that holiday an official day off for the employees of Hope Villages of America. Juneteenth this year, is on a Saturday, so we are celebrating and have paid time off on Friday, June 18th.

TC: That’s great!

PR: So, maybe I can begin a tradition this year of celebrating Juneteenth.

TC: That would be awesome and honestly, within the past several years, like I've never really celebrated per say on that day. Something that I am implementing now with my boys is just making sure that they read a lot more about African-American history. So my youngest, who at the time when I had him read this book, it wasn't on Juneteenth, but this year I've had him read a book about it that was at his age level. So that's the way that I'd like to celebrate, is by teaching my children about their history, all aspects of their history.

PR: That's wonderful, and, you know, that's where it has to begin with the children learning it so that they can then pass it down. I saw a movie, and it was just really a cute little movie about a mom, a single mom, kind of come into her own with her children, and her oldest daughter carried on their tradition as mom too had done by being a contestant in a Juneteenth pageant. I believe the movie took place in Texas as well. So, I think those kinds of events celebrated that way, and brought on TV and movies and things like that, just makes it a lot richer for those of us that have not celebrated in our past. To see how communities are celebrating it today and celebrated it in those earlier times. I hear that, reading the Emancipation Proclamation as an activity, also reading novels or poems by African-Americans in gatherings, family gatherings is also some things that folks do. So, starting a tradition as you are with making sure that your children are knowledgeable about this is, I think, key. And so, I think having the day off will be for me like a way to bring meaning to this day. Having this interview is also bringing to my mind the importance of Juneteenth and that it should be something that we do, as a memory of the day.

TC: Absolutely, and Ms. Pat, I want to thank you so so much for taking the time out to impart such wisdom and valuable information that you've shared with us, and I'm hopeful that this will bring more awareness to Juneteenth and the fact that it is a date that is important to not only be acknowledged by all, but remembered through its annual celebration. We always hear that knowledge is power and knowing the significance of Juneteenth and all that it represents can assist in keeping history from repeating itself.

PR: I concur (both chuckle).

TC: Thank you so much, it's been great talking with you.

PR: Same here, same here Tracy.

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