Around New England

Governor Wants To Rename Rhode Island

June 12, 2020

The state commonly known as Rhode Island has a longer official name:  State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Now the governor wants to change it.

Governor Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, expressed support for putting a name change on the ballot in November 2020 – and said she might do it herself if voters don’t agree.

Here’s a transcript of an exchange during the governor’s coronavirus press conference on Friday, June 12:

 

Reporter:  The debate is renewed about the state name change. I believe I read this morning you said you would favor that. But short of putting it on the ballot, would you consider an executive action to remove ‘Providence Plantations’ from any state buildings?

Governor Gina Raimondo:  I would support – I think it should be put on the ballot, this year.

It’s — I have heard from so many African-Americans in Rhode Island — actually, particularly in the past couple of weeks as I’ve really been amping up my efforts to listen, that it’s a painful thing to see.

Like, state employees. Every time they get their paycheck, they have to see the word “Plantation.” Every time you get a proclamation from the state for doing a good thing, you should feel proud about it, you have to see the word “Plantation.” So, I think we ought to do the right thing — put it on the ballot. Ask the people of Rhode Island to do the right thing and change our name.

I suppose if that is unsuccessful – yes, I would absolutely consider what you have said.

 

Tyson Pianka, a 20-year-old University of Rhode Island sophomore who describes herself as half black, is behind an online petition to try to change the name of the state.

“I’ve been trying to find a place where I can make a difference,” she told WJAR-TV Channel 10 in Providence. “Now is a perfect time to do it.”

In the South, the word “plantation” conjures up images of large landholdings worked by African slaves. But that’s not the case in Rhode Island.

The word “plantations” historically “has zero to do with slavery,” a Rhode Island College history professor told WJAR-TV Channel 10, and instead refers to villages and settlements.

Roger Williams founded what is now commonly referred to as Rhode Island in 1636. “Providence Plantation” is what he called the area around what is now the city of Providence, which is where he settled. He eventually incorporated a settlement in Warwick into the colony — which is why “Plantations” is plural.

Around that time, what is now known as Aquidneck Island — but which in colonial times was called “Rhode Island” — held two separate settlements — one in Newport, and another in Portsmouth.

Williams united all the settlements in the area in 1644 into what became known as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. With independence, “Colony” was replaced by “State,” but the rest remained.

While the word “Plantations” in the state is not connected with slavery, Rhode Island does have a history with slavery. The Brown family, major funders of what eventually became known as Brown University in Providence, were major slave traders in colonial times and during the early years of independence – although Moses Brown broke with the rest of the family over the issue.

Other prominent Rhode Island merchants also engaged in the slave trade.

In 1784, the state’s General Assembly passed a law providing that children of slaves would not be slaves. It provided for what the act called “the gradual Abolition of Slavery.”

Rhode Island outlawed slavery in its state constitution in 1843.

To change the name of the state would require an amendment to the state constitution, which would require a statewide referendum. It would take a vote of the General Assembly to put the measure on the statewide ballot.

In 2010, Rhode Island voters rejected a ballot question seeking to change the name of the state, 78 to 22 percent.

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