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.

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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."

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"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."

The debate has deep roots. Roger Williams, the theologian who, ironically (given the current debate), was an early and fierce advocate of religious and ethnic tolerance and the abolition of slavery, is believed to have included "Providence Plantations" as a nod to the state's numerous farms and settlements.

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The phrase "Providence Plantations" emerged in 1636, when Williams founded a colony after fleeing religious persecution in neighboring Massachusetts. The colony of Rhode Island merged with the Providence Plantations; both were recognized under that now controversial name as a single English colony in 1644.  

The Voting for Rhode Island website, sponsored by the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC), a group of community organizations advocating the change, concedes the historical context of the state's full name.

"Voting for Rhode Island recognizes that when Roger Williams named the area 'Providence Plantations' he did so without malice; however, as the state would go on to take a lead in the slave trade, the word 'Plantation' would eventually change into a very negative term," the ULMAC website says.

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The Providence branch of the NAACP, which backs the change, stakes out its position in a statement on its website: "Rhode Island owes much of its economic success during the critical settlement and revolution periods to the use of African slave labor and trading. … Rhode Island's early economic existence was integrally tied to African men, women and children slave labor."

Some name-change opponents maintain that the state's role in the "peculiar institution" was peripheral, but discoveries by scholars call that into question. 

On a scholarly website devoted to the slave trade in the North, historian, author and journalist Douglas Harper notes that Rhode Island "was among the most active Northern colonies in importing slaves. Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants sponsored at least 934 slaving voyages to the coast of Africa and carried an estimated 106,544 slaves to the New World.

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"In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves," Harper continues.

Slavery was the state's "number one financial activity" from 1720 to 1807, according to Ray Rickman, the project director of a 2009 exhibit on the Rhode Island slave trade at the Jamestown Library.

Rum distilling was central to the Rhode Island economy. "The slave trade started here with the spirits: Rhode Islanders would manufacture rum, which they would ship to Africa and sell or trade for slaves," according to the Jamestown Press, a Rhode Island community-news website that interviewed Rickman in March 2009. " 'Rhode Islanders were really good at making rum,' " he told the site.

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Rhode Islanders then brought some slaves to the West Indies, where the slaves would be sold or traded for sugar cane, which was then transported back to Rhode Island, converted to molasses and used to create the rum, Rickman explained.

Harper's research notes that in Narragansett County, "one-third of the population was [a] black work force by the mid-18th century. That's comparable to the proportion of slaves in the Old South states in 1820."

Name-change opponents like Rice and the state's Republican governor, Donald Carcieri, who claim the word "plantation" is an innocent misnomer, might consider another revelation by Harper: One slave owner, Robert Hazard of South Kingstown, "owned 12,000 acres and had 24 slave women just to work in his dairy," Harper writes. A spread that size certainly constitutes a reliable example of a plantation.

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Regardless of Roger Williams' original intent using the word "plantations" in 1636, its definition, in the context of the slave trade during the years that followed, reconciles tragically with more modern interpretations of the word.

And Rice's opposition to the bill on purely emotional grounds — because "there is something majestic about the name when it is said in open court" — suggests that what's really at issue is the will to overcome the force of habit, as well as the notion that it's best to "let sleeping dogs lie." An unwillingness to revisit the state's role in the slave trade doesn't erase the history of that trade.

"This effort is not intended to rewrite history, but to create a better future for the generations of Rhode Islanders yet to come into existence," Voting for Rhode Island says on its site. "Clearly, no one alive today is responsible for the crimes of the past, however it is our responsibility to acknowledge our history as to ensure that the remnants of a hurtful past are discussed and laid to rest."

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The state with the smallest land area has the longest name and the longest-standing historical connection to slavery in that name. Shortening Rhode Island's formal name would not only reinforce the power of the state's traditions of tolerance and liberty but also send a clear signal that it intends to mark a bright line between the present and the past.

Michael E. Ross is a frequent contributor to The Root.