Can a Name Change for Rhode Island Heal Old Wounds?

For some state lawmakers, an attempt to change Rhode Island's name via ballot measure is unnecessary revisionism. But an unwillingness to revisit the state's role in the slave trade doesn't erase that history.


By Michael E. Ross

Next Tuesday, Rhode Island voters will decide whether to shorten the state's official name from "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" to "State of Rhode Island," out of a desire by some citizens' groups and state lawmakers to erase from its formal name what they see as a blemish.

Unlike so many of the hotly debated issues coming before U.S. voters on Nov. 2, stances on the proposed amendment to the Title, Preamble and Section 3 of Article III of the Rhode Island Constitution don't conveniently break down along party lines. Democrats both support and oppose the measure.

State Rep. Joseph Almeida, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, believes that making a change will reflect the evolution of Rhode Island and be a candid admission of the state's past. "It's high time for us to recognize that slavery happened on plantations in Rhode Island, and decide that we don't want that chapter of our history to be a proud part of our name," Almeida told the Associated Press last year.

The issue of changing Rhode Island's name goes back 20 years, when proponents put a name-change measure on the ballot. It was defeated then, but Almeida reintroduced the measure with two other lawmakers in February 2009. Last year the state's General Assembly overwhelmingly approved putting the matter on the November ballot.

For Almeida, a name change reflects a shift in thinking nationally about slavery, a growing willingness to formally acknowledge its intrinsic evil. "If Congress is apologizing, and there's a change in the national attitude about slavery, not doing anything here would be foolish," he told The New York Times in June 2009, alluding to resolutions of apology in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. "Rhode Island needs to recognize its past."

But Democratic state Reps. Alfred Gemma and Michael Rice are among those opposing the referendum, saying that it is an unwelcome attempt to gloss over Rhode Island's long tradition of tolerance, a bid for historical revisionism that doesn't consider the use of the word "plantation" in a more innocent context.

Keith W. Stokes, executive director of the state's Economic Development Corp., joins them as a spirited opponent of the name change, but for a different reason. Stokes, who marks his ancestry to African slaves brought to Rhode Island in the 17th century, said, "I absolutely reject, on a personal level, that removing this name is going to placate people."

"If we move around names, change names, we are going to lose the very essence of who we are. And that's shameful," Stokes said at an Oct. 5 panel discussion on the issue in South Kingstown, R.I.

But at the same event, Fred Ordonez, an activist who worked with Almeida to get the issue on the ballot, said the word "plantations" was "a slap in the face." "Words do have an impact," he said. "Some more than others. To say a person of color should not be concerned with this … I completely disagree."