Posted on June 24, 2020

Rhode Island Moves to Change Official Name over Slavery Ties

Kenya Evelyn, The Guardian, June 24, 2020

Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo has signed an executive order announcing the state would move forward with changing its official name due to its ties to American slavery.

The state’s official name, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” appears on state documents. But the order would shorten it to just “Rhode Island”.

“The pain that this association causes to some of our residents should be of concern to all Rhode Islanders and we should do everything in our power to ensure that all communities can take pride in our state,” the governor wrote.

Raimondo, a Democrat, added that the new name would take effect “as soon as practicable” and apply to all state government communications, including agency websites and correspondence.

The executive order is matched with other state efforts to remove “plantations” from the name. The Hill reported on Monday that the state’s legislature said it will push forward a bill to change the name entirely.

The state’s senate will also introduce a referendum for residents to vote on the change in the November general election. According to the Providence Journal, a 2010 referendum was opposed by more than 75% of voters at the time.

Harold Metts, Rhode Island’s only Black state senator, introduced the 2020 bill. He said: “Whatever the meaning of the term ‘plantations’ in the context of Rhode Island’s history, it carries a horrific connotation when considering the [country’s] tragic and racist history.”

In the US, “plantations” are mostly associated with the brutal institution of chattel slavery. Although chattel slavery has origins in Spain, plantation-based slavery was uniquely Britishcreated by colonizers in the sugar cane fields of Barbados and brought to the southern US. Using enslaved Africans, cash crops like tobacco and cotton sourced the majority of the country’s foundational wealth.

Although Rhode Island was the first colony to abolish slavery in 1652, the law was never enforced. The population of enslaved Black people in the state rose to more than 6% by the end of the 17th century, nearly twice as high as any other colony in New England.

On Twitter, responses to the proposed name change focused on the users’ ignorance to the original name. Many noted the full name for Rhode Island had not been taught an any point in their primary or secondary education.

“People not knowing that Rhode Island is actually short for ‘Rhode Island and Providence Plantations’ is exactly why African American history belongs on every school curriculum,” one user tweeted.

Nationwide, protests and calls for racial justice following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, have escalated to demands for similar changes like the removal of statues, and rebranding of products that have legacies tied to racism and slavery.