PROVIDENCE — Amid a national reckoning on race, early results showed that Rhode Islanders are inclined to keep their official state name as is, “Providence Plantations” and all.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Question 1 seemed poised for defeat by a slim margin, with about 52.9 percent of voters against a constitutional amendment to change the state’s name, and 47.1 percent for it. The tally includes emergency ballots, but not mail ballot counts.
Advocates renewed a push for a constitutional amendment to change “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to simply “Rhode Island,” saying the word “plantations” evokes images of slavery in a state that played a key role in the slave trade. Opponents argued that “plantations” referred to colonies or settlements with agricultural economies and had nothing to do with slavery. In 2010, voters resoundingly rejected changing the state’s name, with 78 percent against and just 22 percent in favor.
Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Black and Latina Providence Democrat who sponsored legislation for the name-change referendum said even if Question 1 is rejected, “We are one Rhode Island — period.”
“We still win, because it became a household conversation,” Williams said. “They are talking about it; they have learned how Rhode Island was engrossed in the slave trade.”
She predicted the name change will pass eventually. “They just don’t get it yet,” she said.
The name change is only one facet of what Rhode Island needs to do to increase racial equity, Williams said. In addition, the state needs to diversify the judiciary, overhaul the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights to address police brutality, improve public schools, and boost low-income housing, she said.
Senator Harold M. Metts, a Black Providence Democrat who traces his lineage to an enslaved woman on a Virginia plantation, said the fact that the vote was closer than in 2010 was a step in the right direction.
“That in itself is a victory,” said Metts, who sponsored the Senate version of the name-change bill. “More people are showing compassion toward how other people feel, the hurts and injustices and pain they feel from the past.”
“Sometimes change has to be incremental, instead of all at once,” said former state Democratic Party chairman William J. Lynch, who chaired the Rhode Island United group that advocated for the name change. “We made progress from 10 years ago, and we may have to revisit it in an election in the not-too-distant future, when people are not so consumed with COVID.”
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s referendum, Governor Gina M. Raimondo has signed an executive order to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state name in official documents, on agency websites, and on state employee pay stubs. Also, the state Legislature and state treasurer have said they are removing those words from official documents because they conjure up images of slavery.
On Tuesday in Providence, Demona Delgado and Dylan Roberts said it’s past time to remove a word that has long been associated with slavery.
Delgado said people only use the full name when noting that Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name. “If that’s our only point of pride, then we need something else to be proud of,” she said.
“As far as I’m concerned, the word ‘plantations’ doesn’t have any place in American culture nowadays,” Roberts said.
In Cranston, Lisa Hassett said she voted against the name change. “It’s ridiculous,” she said. “We need to move forward, not look into the past. You can’t rewrite history.”
A poll conducted by Rhode Island United in September found that 40 percent of respondents supported the name change and 52 percent were against it. Age was a factor: Younger people were more likely to express support for the change. The poll also revealed a sharp partisan split, with 69 percent of Democrats supporting the name change and 91 percent of Republicans against it.