My home state of Rhode Island is quirky place. We still celebrate Victory Over Japan Day in August, although the name was changed to VJ Day and then to Victory Day, in a nod to political correctness. Now there is a move afoot to change the name of the state for similar reasons.

The official name of Rhode Island is “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Voters will have a chance in 2010 to remove the reference to “Providence Plantations” as part of a referendum pushed by advocates who argue that the reference to “plantations” is insensitive to blacks and perpetuates a racist image.

The use of the word “plantations” had nothing to do with, and predated, slavery in Rhode Island. Rather, “Rhode Island” signified the islands in Narraganset Bay and the “Plantations” were the mainland settlements:

Providence Plantations was the name of the colony founded by Roger Williams in the area now known as the City of Providence. Rhode Island was the area now known as Aquidneck Island, which now comprises the city of Newport and the towns of Middletown and Portsmouth, the largest of several islands in Narragansett Bay.

A supporter of the referendum gave this explanation:

CHANGING a name changes very little. Think of “Negro” to “Colored” to “Black” to African-American and how much fundamental change in human and civil rights each of these heralded!

Then there’s the matter of who controls Rhode Island’s history. Up until now, the Yankee elites have fostered a “self-image” of plantations in Rhode Island like those at Plymouth and Jamestown. However, the word “plantation” has evolved over time and evokes memories of slavery that existed in Rhode Island.

Historically, linking Rhode Island’s ties to slavery to the word plantations is a mere word game. Rhode Island never had slave plantations in the Confederacy sense, as this history professor at Rhode Island College pointed out in rebuttal to the author quoted above:

The writer evidently knows little or nothing about Roger Williams, and quite misunderstands or misconstrues the complex history of Rhode Island during Williams’s time. She certainly misses the mark when she describes Williams as “a leader in justifying slavery in Rhode Island by selling Narragansett prisoners of war.”

Williams had been an opponent of what he called “permanent slavery” all his life, and he, along with Samuel Gorton, sought to prevent slavery from taking root in the colony. He believed that no one should be enslaved for life and that the condition should not be inherited.

He was certainly a man of his time, which meant that he, along with nearly everyone else, including the Indians, accepted slavery in some form. Enslavement is what happened to losers in wars, and the Indians and Africans did this just as the Europeans did. Nobody has clean hands on this issue.

Williams had sought to prevent slavery from taking hold in his colony, but he had no control over what Newport and Portsmouth did in the 17th Century. Indeed, “Rhode Island” (which we now call “Aquidneck”) was by far the more important and powerful portion of the colony, and the “Rhode Islanders” did not accept the effort by Providence Plantations to outlaw slavery. As a result, slavery did take root, and Williams was unable to prevent it.

So Rhode Island had a connection to the slave trade, but that slave trade post-dated and was unconnected to the use of the term “plantations.” [Added: Rhode Island began the gradual emancipation of slaves in 1784.]

It’s all academic. The referendum will fail. Few people other than activists and some politicians in Rhode Island think that name has a racist connotation. Rather it is a historical aspect of the state relating to its founding completely unrelated to slavery.

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