PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ As the nation celebrates the day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the United States, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello is catching flak for publicly admitting he did not know what Juneteenth was.
Mattiello expressed his lack of knowledge on WPRO Friday morning, after being asked whether Juneteenth should be established as a state holiday.
“Juneteenth … I apologize, but I don’t even know what you are talking about,” Mattiello said.
State Sen. Harold Metts has repeatedly put forth a Senate resolution recognizing June 19 in Rhode Island.
“As bad as slavery was, they were able to have some long suffering to hold onto their hope, and to have that long suffering knowing that things would be better for future generations,” Metts said.
The debate over whether to remove “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s formal name has also been officially renewed, and when asked about his stance on Friday, Mattiello questioned whether slavery had actually existed in Rhode Island.
The speaker said he needs to further educate himself on the history of slavery in the state.
“I originally did not think we had actual slavery in Rhode Island and that may not be accurate,” he said. “If we did, that may sway my opinion the other way.”
Mattiello has already shown support for recent resolution that would allow for a ballot referendum on striking the phrase from Rhode Island’s formal name.
Historian Keith Stokes, the vice president of the 1696 Heritage Group, said Rhode Island was actually at the forefront of the slave trade.
“Rhode Island was at the center of the British North American Transatlantic slave trade — that is an absolute fact,” Stokes said.
“Everybody thinks slavery was in the south,” Metts added. “We had our own major slave industry right here in Rhode Island.”
Stokes said there needs to be a focus on teaching African American history in Rhode Island schools. A resolution was passed Thursday calling for the state’s public schools to incorporate African American history as part of the curriculum.
Mattiello’s comments sparked outrage among members of the Rhode Island legislature and beyond. Rep. Ray Hull, a longtime critic of the speaker, called Mattiello ignorant and unfit for his position.
“This is a Democratic House speaker in Rhode Island who is against the removal of monuments to those who took up arms against the United States and joined the Confederacy during the Civil War,” Hull said. “This is a Democratic House speaker who claims to respect history, but seems to have a limited vision of what it entails.”
“He is ignorant of our state’s history, ignorant of the experiences and history of people of color in our state and our country,” he continued. “It’s a disgrace, especially for someone who is fond of passing himself off as an informed and intelligent person.”
Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell took to Twitter to express her disappointment regarding Mattiello’s comments. She said that back in February, she read a poem to the Rhode Island General Assembly in honor of Black History Month that chronicles the slave trade.
“If only folks aren’t so dismissive of my voice in the Rhode Island House of Representatives,” Ranglin-Vassell wrote. “So many do not respect or value Black people and Black voices. I know. I am a member of the R.I. General Assembly.”
The Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus called for Mattiello’s resignation following his remarks.
“When people show us who they are, we believe them. We believe this Speaker to be willfully ignorant, sexist and above all unworthy of holding elected office,” the Democratic Women’s Caucus tweeted.
In response to the backlash, a spokesperson insisted Mattiello is “certainly aware of Rhode Island’s shameful involvement in the slave trade.”
“As this discussion is evolving, the speaker is asking Rhode Islanders to join him in learning more about this sad chapter in our state’s history,” the spokesperson, Larry Berman, said in a statement. “We began the journey in the House last night by passing a resolution calling for all public schools to incorporate African-American history as part of the curriculum.”