But Rhode Island, whatever the demographic shifts of recent years, is still an overwhelmingly white state. And even in the age of Obama, convincing the electorate to get behind the name change could take some work.

Richard Lobban, a professor emeritus at Rhode Island College who ran the school's African and African-American studies program for 13 years, is prepared to make the case. He's been doing it for years.

"The fact of the matter is, from the very beginning, we had slaves," he said.

Indians and Africans were pressed into servitude in the early colonial days. Merchants engaged in a "triangle trade" that swapped rum for African slaves, and slaves for West Indies molasses, which was used to distill more rum.

Narragansett horses were a favorite among overseers in the Caribbean. Salt cod harvested here was a staple food for slaves. Slavery was no ancillary part of Rhode Island's early economy, Lobban said. It was a central force. A shameful mark on a state that prides itself on a tradition of tolerance.

This is heavy stuff. And the people of Rhode Island, perhaps dimly aware of Brown's efforts to dig into its own history, could be forced to confront the state's larger entanglement with the slave trade head-on now that the plantations question is moving forward.

We'll see how they react.

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