Seal of the State of Rhode Island and Providence PlantationsI’ve written before about the movement in Rhode Island to remove the words “Providence Plantations” from the state’s name. Supporters argue that these words constitute an offensive reminder of the state’s, and the nation’s, history of slavery.

Last night, the R.I. state legislature approved the constitutional amendment which would change the state’s name. The measure will go before the voters of Rhode Island next year.

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Traces of the TradeI blogged last week that Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North had been nominated for an Emmy Award in “Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research.”

The list of individuals nominated for the award is now available. In addition to those credited in the film as researchers and mentioned last time, the list includes:

Africanus Aveh (line producer)
Andrew Barr (intern)
Boris Iván Crespo (line producer)
Elizabeth Delude-Dix (co-producer)
Heather Kapplow (associate producer)
Alla Kovgan (writer)
James DeW. Perry (historical consultant)

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Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North has been nominated for an Emmy Award by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The nomination is in the category of “Outstanding Individual Achievement in a Craft: Research,” one of thirty-three categories for news reports and documentary films aired on national television in the last year.

Congratulations to Katrina Browne and the rest of our research team—Catherine Benedict, Beth Sternheimer, and Jennifer Anderson.

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I’ve previously blogged about the grassroots effort in Rhode Island to change the state’s name. In short, this movement seeks to remove the words “Providence Plantations” on the ground that the word “plantation” is now too intertwined with slavery.

There is a letter to the editor in today’s edition of the Newport (R.I.) Daily News arguing the case for this name change. The letter is co-authored by my uncle, Dain Perry, and Nick Figueroa of ULMAC:

Newport Daily News

Dain is, like me, a direct descendant of James DeWolf, the leading slave-trader in U.S. history, and appears in the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Nick is a leading figure in ULMAC, an organization which advocates on behalf of racial minorities in Rhode Island, and which has been pushing for the name change.

As I’ve reported previously, there is a joint resolution pending this year before the R.I. legislature on the name-change issue. The resolution has been the subject of hearings in both chambers this spring; it has passed out of committee in the House, and is awaiting action by the full House.

The letter is well-written and makes a strong case for changing the state’s name. My only quibble would be that the letter suggests that the word “plantation” has gone from being an innocent word to one which is dominated by a “malignant” image, much as the swastika became unavoidably linked to the atrocities of the Nazi era.

As someone who encounters the word “plantation” frequently in contexts unrelated to slavery, I’m unconvinced that this has become nothing less than the “true meaning” of the word today. As many dictionaries, encyclopedias, or the work of many historians would illustrate, “plantation” is still often used in ways entirely unconnected to slavery. Instead, I would have focused on an argument closely related to that offered in the letter and on the blog run by Nick and his group, We Are Not a Plantation: that the historical connection of the word “plantation” to slavery in this country naturally makes its use in the state’s official name deeply offensive to many of our citizens, particularly those with a deeply personal connection our history as a slave society.

To read the letter, you may click on the image above, or read the text of the letter below the jump:

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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.

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On Monday, I gave a series of four lectures on slavery and race in New Bedford and Fall River, Mass.

Local newspaper stories about the talks have appeared in the Fall River Herald News (“Descendant of slave trader talks at BCC“) and in the New Bedford Standard-Times (“19th century tycoon’s descendants tell of North’s role in slavery“).

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Will Moredock, in an opinion piece in the Charleston City Paper this week, revisits the effort of the South Carolina State Ports Authority to systematically remove all references to slavery and blacks from its maritime history of Charleston and South Carolina.

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I have very mixed feelings about the designation of February as “Black History Month,” despite the opportunities it presents for those of us who regularly make public appearances to discuss our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination and its impact on our society today.

I always appreciate the opportunity to speak about the story of the DeWolf family and the legacy of our nation’s history of slavery and discrimination. Spreading the message of this blog (and of Traces of the Trade) is important to me, and Black History Month programs generally offer a positive context in which to bring this message to the middle school, high school, and college students who are usually my favorite audiences.

In short, I strongly support efforts to teach our children the full history of the United States, including the role of black Americans and such related topics as slavery and discrimination, and to encourage children to explore the meaning of this history for our society today.

However, I tend to side with those who believe that “Black History Month” usually results in limited exposure to a speaker or two, or to a brief unit on isolated topics in black history, rather than to a comprehensive curriculum about the African-American experience. What I find particularly damaging, moreover, is the pigeon-holing of “black history” into a single month and its treatment as a specialized topic, rather than as an integral part of American history.

As I often tell audiences, especially of younger people, the history of American slavery and discrimination isn’t black history, and it can’t be considered apart from the rest of the American story.

In other words, this is our shared history.

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Earlier this year, we saw the launch of Voyages, an innovative new web site designed to make available to the public the latest incarnation of the invaluable Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.

On December 5 and 6, Emory University will host an international group of scholars for a conference to celebrate the launch of Voyages, to commemorate the bicentennial of the abolition of the trade, and to present research on the slave trade.

Those of us who have worked on the history of the DeWolf family and the slave trade in Rhode Island for the documentary Traces of the Trade, and the book Inheriting the Trade, found earlier versions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade database, including the original 1999 database as well as the more recently updated database and the beta version of the Voyages web site, to be invaluable as research tools.

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The American Jewish Committee has a booklet, available online, which beautifully tells the story of the diversity and shared values of our country at Thanksgiving.

America’s Table: A Thanksgiving Reader tells the personal stories of eight inspirational Americans, representing a variety of racial, ethnic, and personal backgrounds. They are recent immigrants and from long-standing American families; self-made success stories and the beneficiaries of inherited privilege; the descendants of slaves and those who benefited from slavery.

The reader contains passages intended to be read aloud at Thanksgiving, as well as details of all eight Americans profiled. The focus is on the the diverse experiences and shared commitments of all Americans, and on the often difficult history which we have experienced. The emphasis is positive, without shrinking from the negative aspects of our shared history, and there is no no suggestion that the American story is darker than the histories of other parts of the world.

Hat tip: Toby, Ann, and Nanda of Rhode Island for Community & Justice.

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