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Get ready: America's big 250th birthday celebrations are just 2 years away


The United States of America celebrated its 200th anniversary in 1976. The Bicentennial, as it was called, came in an unsettled time, the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, a time of rising inflation and other troubles. Two years from now, the United States celebrates its 250th. Apparently, that is called the Semiquincentennial. Quincentennial is 500, so Semiquincentennial optimistically says we're halfway there. Years ago, Congress established the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission to plan the celebration. I asked Rosie Rios about that. She is leading the planning as chair of what is also called America250.

Do you have some particular relation with or interest in American history that drew you to this project?

ROSIE RIOS: I remember the Bicentennial like it was yesterday. I was 11 years old here in Hayward, Calif., where I was born and raised in the Bay Area. I remember very clearly taking that field trip to go see the Freedom Train at the Oakland Train Station. I remember seeing on our Black and White TVs, those tall ships come through the New York and Boston harbors. And I remember July 4, 1976. It was a cloudy night in Hayward, but those fireworks were never brighter. And so, for me, I want my kids to feel what I felt on that Fourth of July and still feel today.

INSKEEP: So what is your goal then?

RIOS: My goal is to have 350 million Americans participate in our efforts. As you likely know, the World Cup is also happening in 2026, mostly in the U.S. Then, of course, two years later, we have the Olympics in LA. So for the next few years, we are going to have the eyes of the world watching us in a way that hopefully all three of those milestones will bring this sense of unity, perhaps a sense of an appreciation of the U.S. being the oldest democracy in the world, and really, hopefully, set the path forward for our future.

INSKEEP: When I look back at some of the news stories about America250, I can see that you took over a couple of years ago, the top position at a time of discord, there was a lawsuit by...

RIOS: Almost exactly two years ago.

INSKEEP: What has made it hard to get organized and get going?

RIOS: We had a lot of changes internally, externally, and really, my first commission meeting as chair in September of 2022 is really when I proposed these concepts of these high-impact, large-scale, galvanizing public initiatives, setting that tone for what we wanted to do as a commission in terms of no political ideology. So the very first one we launched was America's Invitation, inviting the American public to take this journey with us by submitting their videos of their ideas, their memories.

INSKEEP: Did you say no political ideology?

RIOS: Yes. Absolutely. We've been very fortunate in that no political ideology has made its way through any of our planning conversations.

INSKEEP: How do you do that when history in the 21st century is so contentious?

RIOS: Well, we've been fortunate to have a set of commissioners who all believe in the same mission. Our goal is to engage as many Americans as possible to have the largest, most comprehensive and inclusive celebration and commemoration this country has ever seen.

INSKEEP: You said the word inclusive, which begins to point at some of the debates and disputes - who's included, whose story is it - and I don't want to oversimplify, but we could say there are a couple of big sides of the debate over history, and one, I guess, is symbolized by the 1619 Project put on by The New York Times, which effectively proposed a different founding date for America, focusing on the arrival of slavery. And, of course, there's been a lot of pushback from people on that. How do you think about that aspect of it?

RIOS: That America means very different things to very different people. And that's what I think about when I think about inclusive, right? So we are providing those platforms for all those stories to come forth. We just launched our pilot program of our second large-scale public initiative called America's Field Trip. America's Field Trip is a national student competition for grades 3 through 12, asking the question, what does America mean to you? And so, you know, out of the mouths of babes, we just received thousands of submissions. And I got to tell you, it's very moving.

INSKEEP: How will you portray the westward expansion of the United States?

RIOS: So, I mean, look, if you think about what our country looked like in 1776 - right? - we were a nation of nations. Alaska was Russia - right? - Hawaii was its own kingdom. I was born and raised in California, which was Mexico. Texas had six different flags flying over it. We doubled our footprint with the Louisiana Purchase with France. And interspersed through all of that are the Indigenous and slave experiences. So, for us, it was very, very important to make sure that all the states and the district and the territories form their own commissions. The Federal government cannot tell the state stories. The states have to tell her own stories.

INSKEEP: What experiences would you want 11-year-olds to have in 2026 around the Fourth?

RIOS: I would love every state district and territory to also have their own commemorations and celebrations. You know, maybe it's part of their state fairs, maybe it's part of their county fairs. This has to be sea to shining sea. I say from Guam to Alaska, for Fairbanks to Philadelphia, People have to feel like this is theirs.

INSKEEP: Rosie Rios, thanks so much.

RIOS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: She is the chair of America250. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.