RHODE ISLAND – It’s been a long, ongoing debate, but recent events and the current political climate have brought discussions around the official state name front and center, once again.
The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations may be abbreviated to just Rhode Island after next week, depending on which side of the debate voters come down on, this time around.
When Rhode Islanders were asked if they’d like to strike “and Providence Plantations” from the official state name 10 years ago, the question was overwhelmingly defeated. But despites 77.9 percent of voters deciding against the change in 2010, proponents of the measure believe a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice will sway the vote the other way this time around.
“The reality is that the word ‘plantation,’ a word so closely associated with the horrors of slavery, is still a part of our state’s official name,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a video campaign message on Tuesday. “We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Systemic racism has plagued our nation since its founding.”
“Stamping it out requires every single one of us to take action — at home, at work and on the ballot,” she added.
While some may feel that the change is merely symbolic, the governor has stated it shows the rest of the country that Rhode Island cares about equality and inclusion.
“We can’t ignore our country’s history, but we can determine our state’s future,” Raimondo said.
One viewpoint from those who are opposed to the name change, however, is that it will erase part of the state’s history. Rhode Island’s Historian Laureate Patrick T. Conley is strongly in favor of rejecting the bond question and has written op-eds to share his thoughts on the subject.
“I oppose the deletion of ‘Providence Plantations’’ from the state’s name, because I also have spent a lifetime as a historian, and, therefore, oppose the rewriting of history in order to cater to present trends or sensibilities, regardless of how tragic or unsettling they have been,” Conley wrote in an op-ed piece published by multiple papers earlier this month. “Presentism is History’s cardinal sin.”
In the 17th Century, the word plantation referred to a settlement, as noted by Conley and others in favor of keeping the official name.
Research Historian Brian Stinson has also written op-eds, stating that “the word ‘plantation,’ as used in our state’s name, has absolutely nothing to do with slavery.”
Rep. Anastasia Williams (Dist. 9 — Providence), who helped introduce a resolution to have this item placed on the ballot, said she agrees with the statement, but that times and the meaning of words have changed.
“When people hear that word plantation, it brings us back,” Williams said last week during an online community conversation with Lt. Gov. Dan McKee. “It brings many of us back to that place. By reading and knowing our history — not black history, [but] American history — it brings you to a time that you don’t want to live again.”
While many may not be comfortable discussing it, or may not acknowledge it, Rhode Island played a considerable role in the trans-atlantic slave trade, according to Williams. Recent tragedies, such as the death of George Floyd, have sparked discussions of racial injustice all over the country and have breathed new life into the discussion of the official state name.
“A lot of people have gotten comfortable being uncomfortable,” Williams said. “And they’re willing and have been able to have an honest and open conversation with us about the harm that the word continues to have.”
“We are here and we’re supposed to be cohabitating in this state,” she added. “We’re supposed to be one, and we can be.”
Another key player in helping this question come before voters is Sen. Harold Metts (Dist. 6 — Providence), who has long been in favor of the change.
“A decade has passed since the public was asked this question,” Metts said earlier this year. “Attitudes may have changed substantially, even in the past few years – and even in the past few weeks. Whatever the meaning of the term ‘plantations’ in the context of Rhode Island’s history, it carries a horrific connotation when considering the tragic and racist history of our nation.”
Also speaking on this subject last week alongside Williams and McKee was Charles Roberts of Newport, who has been leading efforts to raise awareness of the state considerable role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. He runs the Rhode Island Slave History Medallion Project, which works to mark sites connected to the state’s economic reliance on slave trade.
Sites stretch from Providence to Newport, and include notable locations such as Smith’s Castle in North Kingstown and Patriot’s Park in Portsmouth, have all played a considerable role.
Roberts stressed that prominent, founding members of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, including Roger Williams himself, owned and traded in slaves.
Enslavement was seen as necessary to drive economic development, and even those who are celebrated for establishing religious freedom didn’t find moral issues with the practice.
“How could you look at abuse of men, women and children as not evil, unless you looked at them like chattel? And that’s what it was — the chattel slave trade,” Roberts said.
“They created an institution of injustice towards a whole race of people, just so they could survive,” he added.
Those who claim that the word plantations has nothing to do with slavery are only perpetuating white privilege, according to Roberts.
“Words matter, and the word plantation is an image of people being whipped and tortured in the South,” Roberts said.
“We have to embrace all of our history, not just a piece of it,” he later added. “And embrace it in a way that we respect each other and honor ourselves as Rhode Islanders.”
Whether the question is approved or rejected by the voters, McKee stressed these are important conversations that we all need to be having with one another. Personally, though, he hopes to see the name changed.
“I want to establish to the public that’s watching this, [those that have] been in somewhat denial, that there was enslavement in the State of Rhode Island well into the time Roger Williams was here and beyond,” McKee said.
If approved by the voters, Rhode Island would be the first state to ever change its name without some change in territory involved.