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A renewed debate: Should Rhode Island drop 'Providence Plantations’ from its official name?

A URI student has collected more than 4,300 signatures on an online petition to do just that

A brass replica of the seal of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is embedded in the marble floor of the State House Rotunda.
A brass replica of the seal of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is embedded in the marble floor of the State House Rotunda.Rhode Island Secretary of State's Office

PROVIDENCE — With national attention riveted on matters of racism and inequality, some Rhode Islanders are renewing an attempt to remove the word “plantations” from the state’s official name.

The smallest state has the longest official name: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

Black leaders say the word “plantations” conjures up images of slavery and serves as a reminder of Rhode Island’s outsized role in the slave trade. Historians say that in the 17th century, the word referred to colonies or settlements with agricultural economies and had nothing to do with slavery.

In 2010, voters resoundingly rejected a ballot question to change the name to simply “Rhode Island,” with 78 percent voting against the idea and only 22 percent in favor.

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But now more than 4,400 people have signed an online petition, started by University of Rhode Island junior Tyson Pianka, renewing a call to change the name. And Representative Joseph S. Almeida, a Providence Democrat, said he is planning to introduce a bill to put the question back on the ballot in November.

Jim Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the NAACP, said the time might be right to finally change the name.

“I see Confederate monuments coming down in places I never thought they would come down, and I see NASCAR banning the Confederate flag,” he said. “So I am in a position of believing that anything is possible.”

Vincent said that whatever its origins in 17th-century Rhode Island, the word “plantations” has become clearly associated with slavery. “Regardless of how it was used in the beginning, it has taken on such a connotation that it is now something that pains too many people in our state,” he said.

That’s especially true now, he said, with national attention focused on racial disparities amid the pandemic and on police brutality following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

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Almeida said he first began pushing to change the state name 20 years ago, and he pointed out that former representative George A. Castro had been advocating for it a decade earlier. “It is time for a change,” Almeida said. “It’s time to go forward.”

He said it would be too expensive to remove the word “plantations” from, for example, the brass replica of the state seal that is embedded in the marble floor of the State House Rotunda. But he said he would want to change the seal in the future and reflect that change on documents and buildings going forward.

“Other places in the country are taking down statues and removing the Confederate flag," Almeida said. “So I can’t see why we can’t change the name.”

Pianka, a LaSalle Academy graduate who lives in Warwick, said he launched the online petition in response to current events and because of his research into the state’s history of slave trading. “With all that is going on in the world right now, I’ve been thinking about how I can make some kind of difference,” he said.

Pianka, 20, said the proposal stands a better chance now than it did a decade ago because younger generations are politically active and don’t “hold nostalgia toward the history” of the state’s name. He questioned why opponents are so against the change when so few people use the full state name.

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Pianka, whose father is Black and whose mother is white, said most people associate the word “plantations” with slavery. And given the state’s history as a slave-trading hub, that word “only keeps us connected to a shameful past,” his petition says.

At the time of the 2010 vote, the Globe quoted a then-42-year-old Warwick resident named Jeff Britt who opposed changing the name. “It was political correctness taken to the nth extreme,’’ Britt said at the time. “It was inane on its face.’’

But Britt, a veteran political operative who has pleaded not guilty to charges of money laundering and making a prohibited campaign contribution to bolster House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello’s 2016 reelection campaign, now says he supports the name change.

“My thought back then was that people were against the word ‘plantations’ because it conjures up Southern plantations with slaves, and that’s not Rhode Island,” Britt said. “But based on where we are today, I would go along with removing ‘plantations’ because I’m a product of white privilege and if the name offends people, I need to respect that.”

The Globe also quoted then-governor Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, as saying he was “fine with” the state’s official name as it is.

“At the time, Providence Plantations had nothing to do with slavery or any of the connotations that it has today,” Carcieri said then. “It’s important, I think, to retain the history of the state.’’

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But Governor Gina M. Raimondo, a Democrat, supports changing the state name to remove the words “Providence Plantations,” spokeswoman Audrey Lucas said Thursday.

Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Providence Democrat, held a news conference last week calling for a series of steps to “eliminate systematic racism in Rhode Island,” and on Thursday she said there are “more immediate things that need to be addressed” than changing the state’s name, such as changing Rhode Island’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to increase police accountability.

But Williams said it’s disturbing to see the word “plantations” etched on state buildings and written on state documents.

“When you hear the word ‘plantations,’ it brings you right to Kunte Kinte, whipping of Black people, lynching,” she said. “We don’t see colonies and farmland. We see cotton fields, we see bodies being lynched from a tree, we see George Floyd being stepped on the neck when cuffed in the back.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.