PROVIDENCE — Amid a national reckoning on race, Rhode Islanders opted to amend the state’s constitution and remove the words “Providence Plantations” from the official state name.
While results from in-person voting on Tuesday showed an inclination to keep the state’s official name — Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — by the time early and mail ballots results were posted at 1 a.m. Wednesday Question 1 had passed with 52.8 percent of the vote, according to state Board of Elections.
The narrow win marked a stark contrast to a previous attempt in 2010, when 78 percent of Rhode Island voters resoundingly rejected changing the state’s name.
Advocates renewed a push for a constitutional amendment to rename 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.
The decision "says we are a changing state of inclusiveness, of togetherness,” said Representative Anastasia P. Williams, a Black and Latina Providence Democrat who sponsored legislation for the name change referendum. “We are one Rhode Island — period.”
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, was pleased that Question 1 passed.
"We are no longer hiding from our past. We are acknowledging our role in the Atlantic slave trade,” said Metts, who who sponsored the Senate version of the name change bill. “It was time for us to make amends, and we did so.”
Former state Democratic Party chairman William J. Lynch, who chaired the Rhode Island United group that advocated for the name change, was willing to accept that change might be incremental but was pleased that it happened all at once.
“It sends a bold public signal to people that we are sensitized and willing to think harder about what matters to our neighbors, friends, and co-workers,” Lynch said. “It shows we are a more forward thinking state than people give us credit for.”
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.
Roberts said, “As far as I’m concerned, the word ‘plantations’ doesn’t have any place in American culture nowadays.”
But another Providence resident, Kerri Allanbrook, said she voted against the proposed amendment because she didn’t know it would be on the ballot and didn’t have a good reason to change the name.
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.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.