CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS

November 1, 2010

Change the Name of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations?


CAROLYN’S COMPOSITIONS

CHANGE THE NAME OF THE

STATE OF RHODE ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS?

     On November 2, 2010, Rhode Island voters will decide whether to change their state’s name. Election results at the end of this post.

     Apparently not many Rhode Islanders realize their state’s official name is lengthier than its small size deserves: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Although it isn’t listed this way on modern-day maps, it is on the state seal, and it is in many official state documents. It is also heard in the courtroom when the judge is announced.

     If asked, many Rhode Islanders don’t know what the term plantations means.

     State voters must decide whether or not to drop the phrase and Providence Plantations from the state’s name, leaving it at just State of Rhode Island, an issue that has been debated for years. Only last year did lawmakers authorize a ballot question.  A group of primarily African-American lawmakers made a strong push, speaking about racial divisions and the lingering negative connotations of the word plantations.

     The issue has spawned an impassioned debate over race relations, ancestry and history.

     In 1663, when King Charles II granted a royal charter to the colony of Rhode Island, plantations was a general term for a settlement or colony. Rhode Island was formed by merging the Providence settlement, founded by minister Roger Williams, with nearby towns.

(Picture: This wharf, on the former Rebecca and Thomas Cornell property—1600s—points across Naragansett Bay towards Providence, Rhode Island. To read about the Cornells click on KILLED STRANGELY: A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY.) 

     The sting: although the word plantations originally wasn’t associated with slavery, that fact can be considered irrelevant. Rhode Island merchants became rich when the state had a prime role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade (along with trading rum, sugar and molasses). The trade was among New England, the Caribbean and West Africa.

     Persons promoting the name change state that the word plantations is as inextricably linked to slavery as is the swastika is linked to Nazi Germany and ethnic hatred (the swastika was traditionally a harmonious symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism*).

     The word plantations evokes images of slavery in a person’s mind, according to Nick Figueroa, 41, a member of a legislative minority advisory coalition that backs changing the name.

     Others disagree with the name-change idea because the name is part of the state’s history. Brown University history professor, Michael Vorenberg, understands the contemporary connotation of the word plantations, but keeping the word in the state name provokes both questions about its meaning and discussions on the role of slavery in the state and in New England.

     Tracing his family’s arrival to Newport centuries ago, Keith Stokes, who is multiracial, believes that the debate over the state name ignores Rhode Island’s legacy: a colony founded on religious tolerance, where minorities (Jews, Quakers, etc.) settled after being rejected elsewhere. The colony’s charter laid out the principle of separation of church and state long before the Bill of Rights.

     “We have so many stories to share, we have such rich histories,” he said.

     Lori Urso, director of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in Kingston, said the Society does not take a position, but it has sponsored educational sessions about the issue.

     She noted that the cost of changing the state’s website, erecting signs and developing letterhead and official forms could be costly, although some historical documents wouldn’t change.

     Figueroa opined that the costs would be minimal, focusing on phasing the name out of state correspondence. It would not change the state seal embedded in the floor of the Statehouse.

     Before completing this post, I checked my birth certificate, as I was born in Providence, Rhode Island somewhat over sixty years ago. The document lists my place of birth as State of Rhode Island—-with no mention of and Providence Plantations.

     No wonder I was ignorant of the fact that the state officially had a long name.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

November 3, 2010: Election results are in.  

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Rhode Islanders have voted to keep the word “Plantations” in the state’s official name despite concerns that it evokes images of slavery.

Rhode Island is formally called “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” The name appears in the colony’s 1663 Royal Charter and is on the state seal and many official documents.**

From a comment following the above post: Proposition to shorten “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to just “Rhode Island” fails — by 56 points.

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FOR FURTHER BACKGROUND INFORMATION

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/opinion/05vowell.html?_r=1

http://www.nytimes.com/2000/02/26/arts/think-tank-rhode-island-and-slavery-how-much-to-read-into-an-old-name.html?fta=y

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SOURCES

http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/election/s_705959.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/26/AR2010102603135.html

*http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/pittsburgh/s_706957.html

**http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/03/rhode-island-keeps-planta_n_778085.html~~~~~~~~~~~~

ADDITIONAL READING:

 IS THIS “CHEERS?”

Rhode Island: Part 1

KILLED STRANGELY: A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY

IN NEW ENGLAND, HISTORY CONFLICTS WITH PROGRESS

KILLED STRANGELY: A NEW ENGLAND MURDER STORY

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1 Comment »

  1. I too, am a Rhode Islander, born in Newport. Although my birth certificate, is like all, a city birth record, it does have a state seal. If you attended school in the 1940’s in RI you were taught the full name. Since the original reason for naming the state never included slavery as an issue, perhaps its best to leave it alone. If we begin to remove all references to an issue, how will anyone know of it or discuss it? Until the election of a black American to the office of President the people in the state of RI simply discussed it only rarely. It now suddenly seems to be an issue. Rewriting history does not change it, nor does it right any wrongs.

    Comment by Fran Welts — November 1, 2010 @ 5:05 pm | Reply


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