STATE HOUSE — The Senate voted unanimously today in support of legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold M. Metts to ask voters in November whether to change the official state name. The proposal would eliminate “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name, “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” because the outdated reference conjures an image of a time and place when slavery was widely accepted.
Because the name change requires a constitutional change, it must be approved by the voters to take effect.
Senator Metts, along with Rep. Joseph S. Almeida (D-Dist. 12, Providence), led the drive to change the state’s name a decade ago as well. In 2009, he sponsored the Senate version of the resolution that placed a similar question on the 2010 General Election ballot. The question was defeated by the voters, but Senator Metts believes the time has come to ask the public again.
“A decade has passed since the public was asked this question. Attitudes may have changed substantially, even in the past few years — and even in the past few weeks,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence). “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.”
He continued, “The images that come to mind when I hear the word ‘plantations’ are of the inhuman and degrading treatment of the African-Americans who came before me, families ripped apart by slave sales, rapes and lynchings. It is a hurtful term to so many of us. Not unlike the debate over the Confederate flag, retaining the term does nothing to memorialize history but conjures an unnecessary and painful reminder of our racist past.”
The senator noted that his own church, Congdon Street Baptist Church, where he serves as a deacon, was demolished by its white neighbors on Meeting Street in Providence before it was rebuilt in its current location. His own maternal lineage can be traced back to the Speck Plantation near Charlottesville, VA, according his great, great aunt, Bertha Hawkins-Cooper, who lived to be 106 years old.
“Making this change would pay some respect to our ancestors who were forced into slavery, and would stop serving as a constant reminder to present-day Rhode Islanders of our painful past,” he said.
The joint resolution (2020-S 2902) now goes to the House of Representatives, which also must approve in order for the question to be placed on the ballot. Rep. Anastasia P. Williams (D-Dist. 9, Providence) introduced companion legislation in that chamber today.
The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Senators Sandra Cano (D-Dist. 8, Pawtucket), Ana B. Quezada (D-Dist 2, Providence), President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio (D–Dist. 4, North Providence, Providence) and Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D–Dist. 1, Providence).