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Rhode Island speaker draws criticism over slavery comments

House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. (WJAR)
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. (WJAR)
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Rhode Island's powerful Speaker of the House is playing defense over slavery comments he made on the radio.

"Quite frankly, I need to educate myself because originally, I did not think we had actual slavery in Rhode Island and that may not be accurate," said Speaker Nick Mattiello on WPRO Radio with Gene Valicenti Friday.

The comments about slavery from Mattiello began with a discussion on removing "Providence Plantations" from Rhode Island's official state name. And then a question about recent calls for making Juneteenth, June 19th, a recognized holiday commemorating the end of slavery.

Valicenti: "Juneteenth as a holiday, that's today, would you support making that a state holiday? It may very well become a federal holiday. There's legislation in the Congress to do that. Juneteenth."

Mattiello: "Juneteenth, I apologize I don't even know what you’re referring to."

Mattiello acknowledged he wasn’t going to ad lib his answer to the question and just come clean.

"I would certainly be happy to celebrate the end of slavery, that's one of the original things in this country, it was a horrible time in our country, it was a horrible part of our history, but it is our history and is something we need to learn from," said Mattiello.

From the Brown brothers and Bristol's Dewolf family, one does not need to look far for examples of the state's history.

"RI was a huge part of the slave trade" said one tweet.

The speaker quickly drew the ire of social media and political opponents.

Democratic Rep. Ray Hull of Providence called Mattiello unfit.

"He is ignorant of our state's history, ignorant of the experiences and history of people of color in our state and our country. It's a disgrace," said Hull in part of a statement.

The reaction was enough for the speaker to respond.

"Speaker Mattiello is certainly aware of Rhode Island’s shameful involvement in the slave trade. He supports placing on the ballot this November the removal of the word 'plantations' from the state's name so that all Rhode Islanders can make their opinions known. 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. 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," said Larry Berman, the speaker's director of communications.

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