“Nobody is trying to eradicate the history that has been in play,” said Democratic state Rep. Anastasia Williams of Providence, who worked to get the question placed on the ballot this year following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police and is now working with the “Yes on 1” campaign. “But we need to present the true and accurate history of it entirely, as opposed to just bits and pieces.”
Williams added: “If you don’t believe that that word has a life, a real dark painful life, then you’re seriously mistaken.”
‘What does that accomplish?’
Rhode Island’s historian laureate, Patrick Conley, opposes the measure.
“My opposition is purely historical,” he told CNN, insisting his opposition is not racist. At the time Providence Plantations was founded, “plantations” simply referred to a tract of land or a farm, he said.
“The word ‘Providence’ is for God’s divine providence in giving Roger Williams a place to establish the American principle of religious liberty and church-state separation,” Conley said of Providence Plantations’ founder. “You want to wipe that away?”
Conley also questioned what striking the words from the state’s official name would achieve.
“What does that accomplish? Does that advance race relations in America? In the world?” Conley said. “It is what it is. History is what it is. You don’t whitewash history. That is an act of, frankly, stupidity.”
“Removing the word ‘plantation’ — it will never truly make the amends of the past, the horrors of the past, but at least makes amends,” said Democratic state Sen. Harold Metts of Providence, another legislative sponsor of the ballot question. He said he can trace his own family history of enslavement to a plantation in Virginia.
A prior campaign to change the name
“If people knew Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade, they would be more understanding,” Metts said. He and Williams cited the groundbreaking work by Brown University President Emerita Ruth J. Simmons studying the university and Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.
“Accept the true and accurate history of what Rhode Island participated in, because it’s out in the open,” Williams said.
This year’s effort
There is no organized opposition campaign filed with the state, though supporters of sticking with the full name are making themselves known in opinion pages and letters to the editor.
There has been no public polling on the question, but longtime Rhode Island pollster Joe Fleming said this year has been different than the previous push.
“I don’t think there was any strong reason why it should change at that time,” Fleming said of the 2010 effort. “Now, I think there’s more of a reason, if they can get that out to the voters.”
Piecemeal local changes