RHODE ISLAND – It’s been a historic election on many fronts, but Rhode Island earned its place in the history books this year for being the first state to change its official name.
After years of debate, and an entire decade since Rhode Islanders last weighed in on this issue, the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations will simply be known as just Rhode Island.
Rep. Anastasia Williams (Dist. 9 — Providence), who helped introduce a resolution to have this item placed on the ballot, said she was elated to learn the results early this morning. When she’d gone to bed only a few hours earlier, before all the votes had been counted, she’d thought the question had been narrowly defeated.
When she awoke, Williams was greeted by messages of congratulations.
“I got energized immediately,” Williams said, joyfully. “I got a surge, and I was like ‘Yes, baby!’”
“We all did it together,” she added. “We can say one Rhode Island.”
Sen. Harold Metts (Dist. 6 — Providence), who also introduced a resolution to help place this item on the ballot, also went to bed on Election Night, thinking the question would be narrowly defeated. He too, was woken up to messages of congratulations.
“I’m very grateful – especially given the toxic climate that we’re in and the negativity that’s swirled this whole election – that people showed compassion for how the African-American community feels about the horrors of the past,” Metts said.
The history of slavery and inhuman treatment of the African-American community has largely been ignored, he said, as well as the role Rhode Island played in the slave trade.
“To see it pass, and to see people show compassion for other people, it really says a lot about people,” Metts said. “I just thank God for that type of spirit, because we’re certainly gonna need that spirit as the country moves forward.”
“We need healing,” he continued, “and perhaps that’s a small part of the healing that’s needed. We can’t change the past, but we can certainly make amends as we move into the future.”
Though he wasn’t sure of where Rhode Islanders would come to stand on the issue, Metts said he’d been anticipating a tight vote this time around. When he went to bed on Election Night, thinking that the question would be defeated once again, he was still encouraged to see how much public opinion and awareness had improved over the past decade.
Although there had been some efforts to educate Rhode Islanders on the history and atrocities of slavery in this country, especially right here in the Ocean State, Williams said the message didn’t take root last time around in 2010.
When Rhode Islanders were asked if they’d like to strike “and Providence Plantations” from the official state name ten years ago, the question was overwhelmingly defeated. But despite 77.9 percent of voters deciding against the change in 2010, proponents of the measure believed a nationwide reckoning with racial injustice will sway the vote the other way.
While the question was approved by voters this time around, the margin for victory was slim. The difference of 29,058 votes, decided the fate of the race.
Until mail and emergency ballots were accounted for, early polling numbers indicated that Rhode Islanders would once again decide against the abbreviation. Of those who showed up to the polls on Election Day, only 75,727 voters were in favor of the change, compared to 97,400 voters who didn’t want to see the abbreviation.
This difference of 29,058 votes was eclipsed, however, once all the ballots were counted.
More than 126,000 Rhode Islander voted by emergency ballot at their town or city halls over the past several weeks, though the decision among emergency voters was much more closely divided. A difference of 2,789 Rhode Islanders were in favor of the abbreviation, compared to those who would have liked to see the original name remain in place.
The vast majority of mail voters were in favor of the change, however. According to voting data from the Rhode Island Board of Elections, as of Wednesday morning, 92,125 Rhode Islander were in favor of dropping “and Providence Plantations” from the official state name – nearly double the number of mail voters, 48,103, who’d hoped to keep the full name.
By the following Wednesday morning, after more votes had been counted, 102,363 Rhode Island mail voters were in favor of the change – compared to the 54,421 who'd been in favor of rejecting the abbreviation.
Though the full, official state name had hardly ever been used, many who’d been against the change viewed the measure as erasing part of the state’s history, and others have pointed out that the word plantation carried a very different meaning in the 17th Century, compared to today.
“When people hear that word plantation, it brings us back,” Williams had said during an online community conversation with Lt. Gov. Dan McKee ahead of Election Day. “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.
Heading into Election Day, Williams had said “how we have to look at this if we lose, is we still won.” Williams said she was both surprised and not surprised by how closely the question had been determined. Compared to a decade ago, public education on the issue was greatly improved.
“There was no history, no teaching, no conversation,” Williams said. “This time, when I took the lead, I said ‘It’s got to be more than an initiative to put it on the ballot. We have to educate the public.’”
She believes events that have highlighted racial inequalities within our society, such as the pandemic and Floyd’s death, are a large part of the reason Rhode Island wasn’t operating “business as usual.”
“People need to start getting comfortable getting uncomfortable,” she said. “We’re certainly moving in the right direction. Finally, moving in the right direction.”
“People were more willing to listen, people were more willing to talk about it,” she added.
*These figures have changed slightly since this article's original print publication, now that more mail and provisional ballots have been counted.