Moving Off the Plantation?

Rhode Island's identity crisis
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  July 1, 2009

Rhode Island, whatever its obsession with history, has only lately begun to come to terms with the darkest stain on its past: slavery.

It was just three years ago that Brown University's Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice released a report detailing the school's historical ties to the slave trade.

And as recently as March, the school was still unveiling its efforts at reparation. The latest: plans for a memorial exploring Brown's relationship with the peculiar institution.

Now, another effort.

Both houses of the General Assembly, prodded by black activists and politicians, have voted to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would shorten the state's official name from Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to, simply, Rhode Island.

The word "plantation," of course, conjures images of slavery. And if the question actually lands on the ballot — the Senate went into recess this week without passing the House version of the bill — Rhode Islanders will have a chance to take a symbolic swipe at a shameful epoch.

But will the push heal, as intended?

"The big issue is, what happens if it fails?" said Maureen Moakley, political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "Where does it leave our notion of coming together and understanding? It could be divisive."

There is no polling data on the issue. But there is reason for proponents to be concerned.

When Rhode Island settled on its official name in 1636, the word "plantation" did not have the connotation it would pick up some two centuries later — it referred, more benignly, to the farms on the state's mainland. And there are early indications that a tradition-bound state could resist calls to change a name that was not intended to invoke bondage.

There are a handful of vocal opponents in the General Assembly. And as we went to print this week, nearly 84 percent of respondents to an informal survey on the Providence Journal's Web site were opposed to the idea.

Fear of rejection is already percolating in the state's small black activist community. "I don't want the people of Rhode Island to insult the advocates of racial justice — and that's what a 'no' vote would be," said Ray Rickman, a consultant who once served as a state representative and deputy secretary of state.

But Rickman, who never pushed hard for the change during his days in office, said he plans to stand firmly behind the idea now that it is in the public square. And there is reason for hope, he argued. Rickman said he can't imagine major public officials making a fuss about the question or a moneyed opposition building up around it. And voters, he predicted, will come to the right decision in the end. "I think the natural inclination of Rhode Islanders is to be fair and to do the right thing," he said.

State Representative Joseph S. Almeida (D-Providence) was the House sponsor and chief cheerleader for the bill. And, as a recent piece in the ProJo pointed out, it was his long ties to fellow legislators that helped secure overwhelming passage in the chamber.

As the question moves to the voters, Almeida suggested, that dynamic could replicate itself in a small and increasingly diverse state. "I believe what happened to me in the General Assembly can happen [among] the general populace," he said.

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