Rhode Island To Vote On Name Change

Next week, Rhode Islanders will be voting on whether to change the name of their state. Right now, the smallest state in the union has the biggest official name. Even though you don't often hear it, that official name is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. That last word, plantations, offends some people because it raises the specter of slavery.

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The smallest state in the nation has a big official name: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. But next Tuesday, voters will have a chance to change that by referendum. Some people in what we, of course, call Rhode Island, say the word plantations is a hurtful reminder of slavery.

From member station WRNI, Alex Nunes reports.

ALEX NUNES: State Representative Joseph Almeida doesn't have to look far when he wants a reminder of the state's official name. Sitting in his Providence office on a recent weekday morning, Almeida reaches into his back pocket and takes out his official legislative ID.

State Representative JOSEPH ALMEIDA (Democrat, 12th District, Rhode Island): In the wallet, they give us a badge. And on the badge, all it says is Representative Joseph Almeida, State of Rhode Island. That's it. But on the ID card, it says State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

NUNES: That last word, plantations, and its link to American slavery doesn't sit well with Almeida, who is of Cape Verdean descent.

State Rep. ALMEIDA: You got a black man, his picture underneath the word plantations. I don't know. That doesn't make me feel too good at all -at all.

NUNES: Almeida says he's pretty sure members of Rhode Island's delegation to Washington wouldn't like to have themselves introduced before the House and Senate as being from the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

State Rep. ALMEIDA: Can you imagine if the Congressional Black Caucus had to hear these white legislators being introduced from a Providence Plantations here in the 21st century? No.

NUNES: Almeida's push to shorten the state name faces resistance from opponents who say the change would ignore history.

Professor STANLEY LEMONS (History, Rhode Island College): The term plantations in it has zero to do with slavery. It's nothing to do at all with slavery.

NUNES: Stanley Lemons is a professor emeritus of history at Rhode Island College. He says the term plantation was used in the 17th century to mean settlement. Lemons has taught state history and black history, and he adds the argument against Providence Plantations is ironic because Rhode Island was divided on the issue of slavery.

Prof. LEMONS: Providence Plantations was the part of Rhode Island that attempted to prevent slavery from taking root in the new colony. It was Rhode Island that took the lead in slave trading. Aquidneck Island -Rhode Island. The Rhode Island part is the slave trading part. That's where almost all the slave trading took place in this 18th century.

NUNES: At Providence's Kennedy Plaza bus station, reaction to the ballot question is mixed. Edgar Jensen says he sees no need to remove the term plantations.

Mr. EDGAR JENSEN: It's part of the identity of the state. I've become accustomed to it, and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is how I know to address my state.

NUNES: Francis Symons(ph) disagrees. He says his ancestors were slaves.

Mr. FRANCIS SYMONS: That's something that you'll never forget. And then when you hear plantations state, first thing you think of is that. We're supposed to be free and to be able to do what we want to do, but that always haunts us when we hear that.

NUNES: Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's election, supporters of the name change say it's part of a larger push for greater recognition of African-Americans in Rhode Island history.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Nunes in Providence, Rhode Island.

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