Eight years after an effort began to remove the word “plantations” from Rhode Island’s official state name, a related bill has not made it out of committee. Yet during a House Fi-nance Committee hearing last week, the current legislation — sponsored by state Representative Joseph Almeida (D-Providence) and state Senator Harold Metts (D-Providence) — generated widespread support in the African-American community and among social justice groups.
Brother Everett Muhammad, of the Ministry of Justice for the Millions More Movement, argues, for example, that the legislation is important to “acknowledge the cruelty of the slave trade and Rhode Island’s involvement in it, as well as how slavery dehumanized millions of people and caused unspeakable crimes against men and women.”
The bill’s detractors argue that “plantations” is an agricultural term that described the farms of Rhode Island, and that linking the term with slavery and the plantations of the South is historically inaccurate.
Keith Stokes, the executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce, is a vocal opponent of removing “plantations” from the state name. While Stokes acknowl-edges that the word brings to mind images of African slavery and oppression, he says it can also empower people of color: “Despite having ancestors who arrived in this country as forced settlers,” he notes, “they led remarkable lives highlighted by perseverance and determination to achieve, not only during slavery, but also over the hundreds of years of racial discrimination and exclusion.”
Stokes argues that “while it is an honorable intention to want to remove what might offend another person, the removal of a word will not remove the pain of racism, nor will it halt the progression of discrimination.” He adds, “Before we change names, why don’t we start by knowing our African-American heritage and investing resources in teaching our children this history.”
Yet Gene Kelly, another supporter of the bill, asserts that the intention of the creators of the state’s name — State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — is not as rele-vant as the word’s current meaning. “When ‘plantations’ was written into state law, it was a body of land,” he says.
“However, the connotation changed quickly and came to sig-nify the exploitation of free labor from Africans. This word and its connotation was and is disrespectful to a large group of people, regardless of its intention.”
Ramon Martinez, the CEO of Progreso Latino, chairs the community coalition pushing for passage of the bill: the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC). At the hearing, he testified that “the archaic English term of ‘plantation’ . . . now connote a morally reprehensible, politically offensive, and economically exploitative practice of slavery on an estate and/or farm.” He pointed to Rhode Island’s long history of slavery and racial oppression as evidence.
Despite dim prospects — in part due to the absence of plans for bringing the current bill to the House or Senate floor for a vote — supporters such as Muhammad retain hope that the proposal will be sent to the voters: “If we can get this on the ballot,” he says, “I am fully confident that Rhode Islanders will do the right thing and eliminate this horrible and humiliating reminder of slavery in Rhode Island.”