Seal of the State of Rhode Island and Providence PlantationsThere is an active movement within Rhode Island to amend the state constitution to change the official name of the state, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

This change would remove “Providence Plantations” from the name of the state, on the grounds that the word “plantations” now has an historic association with chattel slavery and has become offensive to many people.

History (and geography)

The name “Rhode Island” actually refers to an island within the state, the largest island in Narragansett Bay. This island, which is also known as Aquidneck Island, is home to Newport and two smaller towns, Middletown and Portsmouth.

The Mount Hope Bridge, prominently featured in the film Traces of the Trade, connects Rhode Island (or Aquidneck Island) to the town of Bristol and the rest of the mainland.

In 1636, Roger Williams left the Massachusetts Bay colony and founded the first settlement in what would become Rhode Island, which he named Providence.

In 1643, when Williams secured a charter for his growing colony, now including Providence and the towns of Newport, Warwick, and Portsmouth, the colony was named “The Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay.”

In 1663, a new charter was obtained for the colony, at which time it gained the new name, “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” which became, after independence, the formal name of the state of Rhode Island.

So, as an historical matter, the word “plantations” in the name of the state predates plantation slavery in the American colonies and did not refer to plantations with slavery at all.

Legislative action

However, there have been sporadic efforts to change the state’s official name for years.

In 2008, there was an attempt to convince the state legislature to bring the question before the voters in November. That effort died after a hearing of the House Finance Committee in May, in which lawmakers in opposition pointed out that the choice of the name has no connection to slavery and suggested that a name change now would whitewash an important part of the state’s history.

In 2009, there is a joint resolution before the Rhode Island legislature, sponsored by state representative Joseph S. Almeida and state senator Harold Metts, to bring about the name change.

“We Are Not a Plantation”

There is now a blog, “We Are Not a Plantation,” sponsored by the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC), which seeks to promote this year’s legislative effort.

The blog takes what I think is an important and constructive position on the issue. It prominently acknowledges that the word “plantation” in the name of the state did not originally connote slavery at all, describing it as an archaic word which used to mean “new settlement or colony.”

Instead, the blog suggests, the name of the state should be changed because the word “plantation” now has a primary meaning which refers to agricultural forms of slavery. These institutions, in turn, are now considered morally repugnant and an apparent reference to them in the state’s name is deeply offensive to many people.

6 Responses to “Changing the name of Rhode Island”

  1. Alexander Perry Scot says:

    To change the name of the state of Rhode Island is to deny the history with which it was built. It connects it with its Plimouth Plantation roots in Massachusetts. To allow a good word to be made into a bad word is wrong. I cling to original meanings for the sake of history and tradition and resent the usurpation by others. People need to be taught the truth of their history, not to deny it. If they wish to be inclusive about the state's name, maybe they should drop Rhode Island and adopt Providnece as its name. Afterall the Providence plantations covered all of the state not included on the island of Rhode.

  2. James says:

    I'm sympathetic to your viewpoint, Sandy. My first instinct on these issues is always to strive for historical accuracy and awareness, and not to allow misunderstandings to govern how we think and speak about our history.

    However, my ancestors were not brutally mistreated by this society, in a history closely associated with words such as "slavery" and "plantation."

    This history and its legacy represent an open wound in our society, one which has never been properly addressed. I think supporters of the name change raise an important issue when they argue that while the word "plantations" has a different meaning in this context, it is a deeply painful word for millions of Americans, and its use in the state's official name is confusing at best.

    This reminds me of an incident, several years ago, in which the use of the word "niggardly" became an issue in city politics in Washington, D.C. It was seen by many people as an offensive word referring to blacks, and by others as a word which was similar enough that it ought to be taboo. As I recall, it took the intervention of several prominent national black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, to convince people that "niggardly" is a perfectly respectable English word, and should not be banned simply because of how it sounds to the ear.

  3. “‘Plantations’ in state’s name is offensive remnant of slavery trade” | The Living Consequences says:

    […] previously blogged about the grassroots effort in Rhode Island to change the state’s name. In short, this […]

  4. Sean says:

    Next thing they will cut out the slavery parts in childrens history books. Some people just have to move on to better issues to be a part of. Get over it.

  5. James says:

    Sean, do you at least recognize that the supporters of this name change aren't trying to eliminate slavery from our understanding of history? That they are enthusiastic about teaching that history, but do not want their state's name to reflect a period which was, and remains, so traumatic?

    As for moving on to other issues, I would suggest that the legacy of slavery is still very much with us today. So I'm quite sympathetic to those who resent calls to simply "get over it." This seems to mean that people should ignore the implications of this history and not work to eliminate them, which would be a terrible idea.

  6. R.I. to vote on changing state’s name | The Living Consequences says:

    […] “plantation” has never been limited to the circumstances of chattel slavery, and the history of the state’s name shows that the words “Providence Plantations” did not have anything to do with slave […]

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