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Rhode Island changes state name to remove ‘Providence Plantations’

First time in U.S. history that state has changed name without change in territory

Successfully ending a campaign that began over 10 years ago, a referendum to remove “Providence Plantations” from the state name of Rhode Island passed on Tuesday with a vote of 52.9 percent approval, according to the Rhode Island Board of Elections. Rhode Island is the first state to change its name without a change of territory, according to the website of Vote Yes on One, an organization that advocated for the name change.

“This world is at a crossroad in time,” said State Representative Anastasia Williams (RI-9), who co-sponsored the resolution to hold the referendum. “The murder of George Floyd opened up the floodgates of many of the ills that had been covered up, kept quiet (and) buried for centuries.”

The University announced the removal of “Providence Plantations” from its official name in September following a unanimous Corporation vote in August. In their announcement, President Christina Paxson P’19, Provost Richard Locke P’18 and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow ’79 wrote  that the connotation of the word “plantations” is reminiscent of Rhode Island’s dark history of slavery, The Herald previously reported.

The history of slavery and plantations “is always going to be there, nobody's trying to change that history,” Williams said. “What we're doing is moving forward and changing it from the state's name that is very insulting, offensive (and) negative.”

To those who say plantations is not an offensive term, Williams says, “get comfortable being uncomfortable, because slavery in Rhode Island is a reality, it is in the history book and it is an offensive word, period.”

Changing the state name was previously proposed by Williams 10 years ago, but the proposition never made it out of the state legislature. The recent progress comes partly from widespread education by the new organization Rhode Island United, according to Williams. Williams founded Rhode Island United alongside former Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch and former House Finance Committee Chairman Antonio Pires to push for the referendum to pass. “I think that it has the momentum (now) that it didn't have before because we had enough time to educate the masses,” Williams said. 

Additionally, because of the pandemic, people had “ample time to be able to reflect on what's going on in this world,” she added. 

While there is still a lot of work to be done to eliminate racial injustice, this feels like an “informal apology,” Williams said. She appreciates people “understanding that the word (plantations) has evolved.”

Going forward, she wants to focus on “a long list” of issues that need to be addressed, ranging from reforming the judicial system to improving education. 

The referendum was backed by a media campaign by Rhode Island United. The group created ads for social media and news outlets throughout the state as well as distributed signs to residents. Much of the organization’s work was funded by a $75,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation. 

The Rhode Island Foundation also asked the University to make a financial contribution to Rhode Island United to help support its media campaign, Williams said. 

The University declined because, as a non-profit organization, Brown is prohibited from “participating in activity to support or oppose ballot initiatives posed to voters,” wrote Al Dahlberg, assistant vice president of government and community relations, in an email to The Herald. “The policy Brown has exists to make sure we comply with federal law,” Dahlberg added. “It's really that simple.”

Williams said that she had previously commended the University’s own name change, but said that the University has much more to repay as a beneficiary of slave labor.

“Brown University is there off of the blood, sweat and tears of slaves who built it and made the Brown family super, super rich,” Williams said. “I think that is an insult … because they were one of the largest slave owners and then here they are generations and generations enjoying fruits off of the labor of slaves and won’t even contribute a nickel.”

Likewise, some students believe that the University needs to take more proactive steps to face its history of slavery. Lauren Wilson ’21.5, co-president of the University’s Black Student Union, understands that being a non-profit education institution prevents the University from financially supporting campaigns like the referendum. “However, I do think that in reconciling with their past with slavery and considering how intimately tied for us history is with the name of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations ... they definitely could have done a little bit more to support” the initiative, Wilson said.

Wilson suggested that the University should continue to work for racial justice on campus and in the Providence community through providing admissions pathways for students from Providence public schools and educating students on slave’s contributions to the University. 

“White supremacy lives in all corners of our society and … I think it's a good idea to get rid of all markers of that,” Wilson added. It’s a “step in the right direction, but of course, I'm sure Rhode Island, as many other states, have a lot of work to do to be more equitable for all people.”



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