Rhode Island Dems move to change state’s name over slavery connotations

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RI Sen Metts. Screenshot/File Photo.

Elected Democratic officials in Rhode Island, the country’s smallest state, are taking initial steps to change its name over past associations with slavery that dates back more than 230 years.

Officially known as the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation,” Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order on Monday to take the “first steps” in changing the name of the first state to declare independence from Great Britain — but the last of the original 13 states to ratify the U.S. Constitution on May 29, 1790.

In particular, the word “plantation” seems to be the lone offender, as critics on the Left complain it has racist slave-owning connotations.

Fox News reports that Raimondo’s order will change the name to simply “Rhode Island” in official communications from her office, which will include future executive orders, in citations, and on stationary letterhead.

Raimondo’s action doesn’t officially change the state’s name because that will require voters to amend the Rhode Island Constitution, the order notes. But already, the state legislature is getting the ball rolling.

Last week the state Senate passed a measure calling for voters to decide whether they want to change the name. The entire Legislature will now consider placing a proposal before voters this fall.

In the Senate, the measure was introduced by Harold Metts, the chamber’s only black member.

“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,” Metts noted in a statement to the Providence Journal.

“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,” he added.

“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.”

Per a spokesman, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello said that while any name-change consideration should “ultimately [be] a vote of the people,” he’s not inclined to rush into it before lawmakers take a summer recess, adjourning again in late July.

“This is an issue that deserves a fair hearing,″ his spokesman, Larry Berman, said, the Journal reported. “The House will be returning sometime in July for the budget and several other matters will also be considered at that time, including this one.”

Metts sponsored a similar name-change proposal in 2010 but it was soundly defeated (~78 percent to ~22 percent). However, he and others in the Rhode Island legislature believe the measure stands a much better chance now following the George Floyd incident and others involving the deaths of black persons at the hands of police.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio is one of them.

“Obviously, we’ve done that before and it didn’t fare well,” Ruggerio said. “I think the situation may be different this time. I support it. It is going to be on a referendum to see if voters support it.”

An online petition supportive of the name change with nearly 7,300 signatures at press time reads, “Some Rhode Islanders pride themselves on living in the ‘smallest state with the longest name’. But, the history of how we got this name is often forgotten.”

Jon Dougherty

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