Lawmaker Opposes Rhode Island Name Change

The world may know it as Rhode Island, but its official name, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, may be on the way out.

Last week, the state's Legislature voted overwhelmingly to hold a referendum to drop the words "Providence Plantations" from the state's name. The reason: Critics say it conjures up images of slavery.

That may be so, but the state's name does not refer to the slave trade, says state Rep. Michael Rice, a Democrat who opposes changing the name.

Rice tells Robert Siegel that the official name goes back to the earliest days of the Rhode Island Colonies established in the 1630s and 1640s. Each of these small agricultural colonies reported directly to England; there was no connection between them. This type of governance was called a plantation colony.

Rice, however, acknowledges that Rhode Island didn't have clean hands in the slave trade. Slaves helped build Brown University, and much of the school's original endowment came from slave-trading funds.

"This is a sad part of Rhode Island history, but it, pretty much, antedates, actually, the word 'plantations' within the name of the state," he says.

Rice also says he likes the official name of the state, the longest in the union.

"There is something majestic about the name when it is said in open court," he says.

Rice, however, backed the call for the referendum on the name change because he says he doesn't want to get in the way of a constitutional issue.

"But I do think it underscores that Rhode Island's quirky history is a natural asset of the state," he says. "And I don't want to do anything to upset one of our key natural assets."

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