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Rhode Island Gives Voters a Chance to Remove ‘Plantation’ From Its Official Name

A view of the Cliff Walk on May 09, 2020 in Newport, Rhode Island.
A view of the Cliff Walk on May 09, 2020 in Newport, Rhode Island.
Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty Images)

Say what you will about 2020, but this has been the year that America is confronted with all the racism—blatant and subtle—that it celebrates through monuments, flags, product brands and the very names given to schools, streets and even entire states. It’s gotten to a point where the state of Rhode Island is moving toward changing its official name by removing the word “plantation.”

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Rhode Island’s official name is the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” According to The Hill, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order Monday announcing that her office will no longer include the word “plantation” in executive orders, citations or on the state’s website. Raimondo also said that “as soon as practicable,” her office will remove “plantation” from all stationery and official correspondence and that executive offices “shall determine whether there is an available alternative to the use of the state seal in official documents and replace or omit such seal where possible.”

Harold Metts, Rhode Island’s only Black senator, introduced a bill to get a referendum on the name change included on the November ballot and the state House approved the legislation last week.

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In Raimondo’s order, she encouraged voters to cast their ballots in favor of the name change.

“I urge the voters to approve the name change in November but will take all measures now that are within my control to eliminate the name from my official communications and those of my executive agencies,” Raimondo wrote.

Some will point out that the word “plantation” doesn’t automatically refer to estates that were maintained through slave labor, which might be why calls to have the name changed have been unsuccessful in the past.

From The Hill:

Rhode Island’s roots trace back to Providence Plantations, a settlement established by Roger Williams in 1636.

A Change.org petition from two weeks ago requesting a name change for the state now has more than 7,250 signatures.

But previous efforts to modify Rhode Island’s name have been unsuccessful, with nearly 78 percent of voters opposing removing “Providence Plantations” from the name in 2010.

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But Metts explained in a statement that the word has a connotation attached to it that will immediately jump out at Black people regardless of what kind of plantation is being referenced.

“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 said, according to the Providence Journal.

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This move comes at a time when monuments commemorating Confederate leaders and other colonizers are coming down either by government sanction or by force; brand symbols like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben are being removed from their company’s product line; and pressure has mounted to change the names of schools and other institutions that have Confederate origins.

So, like I said: say what you will about 2020...

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

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DISCUSSION

I think it was eight years ago, but the head editor of 538 had a giant rant about this because apparently his background was in the region’s history, and based on the fact the the Providence Plantation was founded by abolitionists and was historically the most actively political on that topic.

I’m probably unusual in not really associating the word “plantation” with the American Southeast (unless it’s a “southern plantation” or the word being applied to something in the southeast), but rather with ones more local to me (such as Plymouth, whose real-life basis apparently included at least one “blackamoor” whose identity has been a matter of dispute because the record the description appears in was poorly laid out) or tropical ones that grow cash crops like coffee and pineapple (also, sugar cane and derivatives like molasses and rum, which we all know have their own slave histories). Apparently, the use of the word on those comes from a definition hinging on being large plots cleared in one go for the growth of commercial crops in a single-crop manner, such as orchards in New England and tropical fruit in the tropics. Of course, those have their own contentious history in reference to Native Americans and colonialism, being tied to the period’s philosophy that the way to transfer a resource like land from the ownership of God to the ownership of a person is that person putting some of himself into it through “improving” it with refinement or clearing and cultivation and the period ignorance of Native American land management (basically, every contemporary reference to land being “virgin” or otherwise uncultivated is a formal way of declaring someplace up for grabs).