PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — State Sen. Harold Metts has introduced a resolution to hold a ballot referendum this fall on removing the words “and Providence Plantations” from Rhode Island’s official state name.
The move by Metts, D-Providence, comes as anti-racism protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing have revived debate locally on whether the back half of the Ocean State’s legal name — State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — is racially insensitive due to the association of the word “plantation” with Southern slavery, as well as Rhode Island’s deep involvement in the slave trade.
Rhode Island voters overwhelmingly rejected the name change in a referendum a decade ago, voting 78% to 22% to keep the “Providence Plantations” phrase. Opponents of the measure made the case that the word “plantations” was a reference to local farms in the 1600s, regardless of its modern connotation.
“A decade has passed since the public was asked this question,” Metts said in a statement. “Attitudes may have changed substantially, even in the past few years – and even in the past few weeks. Whatever the meaning of the term ‘plantations’ in the context of Rhode Island’s history, it carries a horrific connotation when considering the tragic and racist history of our nation.”
Metts put that history in personal terms. He said his own church — Congdon Street Baptist Church in Providence — was demolished by its white neighbors at its original Meeting Street location, while on his mother’s side his family traces its lineage back to a plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia.
“The images that come to mind when I hear the word ‘plantations’ are of the inhuman and degrading treatment of the African-Americans who came before me, families ripped apart by slave sales, rapes and lynchings,” he said. “It is a hurtful term to so many of us.”
Asked about the issue last week, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said she supports putting the matter on the ballot once again.
“I have heard from so many African Americans in Rhode Island — actually particularly in the last couple weeks, as I’ve been really amping up my efforts to listen — that it’s a painful thing to see,” she said.
“State employees — every time they get their paycheck they have to see the word ‘plantation,'” she continued. “Every time you get a proclamation from the state for doing a good thing, you should feel proud about it — you have to see the word ‘plantation.’ So I think we ought to do the right thing and put it on the ballot, ask the people of Rhode Island to do the right thing and change our name.”
The Senate is expected to vote on the name change referendum Thursday. Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin are among Metts’ co-sponsors, along with Sens. Sandra Cano and Ana Quezada.
If approved by both chambers of the General Assembly, the question would go on the November ballot for voters to decide.
Ted Nesi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook