Providence, R.I. This state’s official name — The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — is more than just a mouthful. To many, it evokes stinging reminders of Rhode Island’s prime role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Voters on Tuesday will decide whether to change the name by dropping the words “and Providence Plantations.” The issue has been debated for years, but lawmakers last year authorized a ballot question for the first time following an impassioned debate over race relations, ancestry and history.
“You go anywhere and you mention plantations and what automatically comes to a person’s mind is slavery,” said Nick Figueroa, 41, a member of a legislative minority advisory coalition that backs changing the name.
Supporters of the referendum see the ballot question as a chance to erase the state’s links to slavery and remove a word they associate with human bondage and suffering. But opponents, including Gov. Don Carcieri, note that the state name actually has nothing to do with slavery and that, in any case, changing it will do nothing to alter history.
Michael Vorenberg, a Brown University history professor, said he understands the contemporary connotation of the word “plantations” but favors keeping the name because it provokes questions.
“People might naturally say, ‘What does that word mean and why is it in the state name?’ And that may lead to a discussion of the role of slavery in the history of Rhode Island, in the history of New England,” Vorenberg said.
The referendum’s prospects are unclear. The issue has been overshadowed by a competitive gubernatorial race and congressional elections, and advocates of the name change haven’t run advertisements. The four leading gubernatorial candidates all oppose it.
“The overall concerns right now are jobs and the economy, and I think that’s foremost in people’s minds, as opposed to altering the name,” Figueroa said.
Many Rhode Islanders might not even know its formal name. It isn’t listed on modern-day maps, though it is on the state seal, is found in many official state documents and can be heard in the courtroom when the judge is announced.
The phrase “Providence Plantations” appeared in the royal charter granted in 1663 by King Charles II to the colony of Rhode Island. At the time, “Plantation” was a general term for settlement or colony. In this case, it referred to the merger of the Providence settlement, which was founded by minister Roger Williams following his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and nearby towns into a single colony.