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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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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Brown University announced plans yesterday to build a memorial to commemorate Brown’s historic connections to the slave trade, possibly in Bristol or neighboring Newport, Rhode Island.

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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 Friday, I’ll be in Newport, R.I. to participate in a panel discussion on “The History of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Rhode Island.”

I’ll be speaking about the Rhode Island slave trade and the example of the D’Wolf family of Bristol, R.I., who were the nation’s leading slave traders. My fellow panelists will be Jim Campbell of Brown University, who will discuss what Brown has uncovered about its own connections to slavery; and Keith Stokes, of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, who will talk about the lives of enslaved Rhode Islanders.

The panel will be held on Friday, June 6, at 4:00pm at the Colony House, Washington Square, Newport, R.I.

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Katrina Brown in the Providence JournalPaul Davis, the Providence Journal writer who has previously chronicled Traces of the Trade and the history of the slave trade in Rhode Island, has a new feature story about Tom DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Family in U.S. History in Sunday’s edition (available online now).

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The Providence Journal, which has frequently covered Traces of the Trade and other stories relating to the history of Rhode Island and the slave trade, has a review in Sunday’s edition of Tom DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History.

The book review is a companion to a feature story about the film leading the Sunday arts section, but the review is available online now. The review is not kind, but I think the reviewer’s reasoning is highly instructive about Tom’s intended audience.

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Tom DeWolf on C-SPAN’s Book TVWhile we were in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, my cousin Tom DeWolf appeared on C-SPAN 2’s Book TV. The program, which ran an hour and 15 minutes, can currently be viewed online here.

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Yesterday, we held a screening of Traces of the Trade in Providence for Rhode Island educators.

The screening, sponsored by the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and hosted by Rhode Island College, was intended to solicit feedback on the uses of the film in the classroom context.

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The local Rhode Island screenings of Traces are generating a fair amount of attention in the state.

Tuesday’s screening in Bristol has resulted in two stories, one in the Providence Journal (“Bristol’s Ties to Slavery Featured“) and another in a local paper, “Slavery Documentary Draws a Packed House.” This is precisely what we were hoping for, as the R.I. screenings are intended to raise the visibility of the film in the state, while the Bristol screening was particularly aimed at giving the residents of Bristol a chance to become familiar with the documentary and to offer their feedback.

And the Phoenix has a story this week, “Buried History: Filmmaker Sparks Fresh Dialogue About RI’s Slave-Trading Past,” focused on last week’s screening in Providence at the Black Repertory Company. (Disclaimer: I was interviewed for the story.)

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