October  2020

Rhode Island Issue Brief

Pat Jaehnig and Teresa Foley, Warwick, RI

What Is In A  Name? 

As Romeo protests to Juliet he reasons; “What is in a name that which we call a rose by any other name would be as sweet?”. So many like Romeo wonder why the hubbub about the State of Rhode Island name. Isn’t Rhode Island and Providence Plantation good enough if you love your State? Sadly, just as Romeo’s sweetness did not overcome the name of Montague, that carried his fate, names do carry a certain power with them.
Naming has been a form of power from our very beginnings and is a central part of most creation myths, Judeo-Christian, African, Native American, and more. Names as formally defined “carry information about the bearer; allows people to make quick judgement or assumptions about us and about others and often is meant to confer honor or project hope and dreams on the one so named.” It is why so many parents take such care with the naming process and why so many people as they age change, add, shorten, lengthen alter their names, reflecting how they are changing or being changed as time passes. But names in many circumstances have had and still can have deadly power; Protestant/Catholic; Sunni/Shia; Arab/Jew…. And as national and personal alliances form, resolve and dissolve the power of the names changes as well.

As the bearer changes so does what their name reveals. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has grown so much bigger than that first name; adding the West Bay, South County, and Northern Rhode Island; not forgetting Block Island The name is no longer adequate for the reality. But the more important question before us is what power, what information that original name now carries. Surely the name “plantation” in the original name carries with it some of the power of the State’s vigorous participation in the slave trade and has become over the years deeply associated with the our nation’s unfolding tragedy of the racial injustice to a people brought here to be slave workers on a “plantation” and then to be so “un-freed” from that plantation; suffering decades of discrimination even after a divisive civil war. That unfolding history has charged the word “plantation “with so much more than its’ original agrarian meaning. It now bears with it such a painful history that its’ very pronunciation can still have a powerful impact.

“In the eighteenth century alone more than 6 million Africans were taken from their homeland to plantations in Brazil, the Caribbean, and, to a much smaller extent, British North America. Slavery was more prevalent in Rhode Island than in most of New England…By the middle of the eighteenth century, slaves made up more than 15 percent of the population of Newport, and in Narragansett country, a district of fertile plantations on the coastal plain to the west, dozens of farms were tilled by teams of ten to twenty slaves…” **
For many Rhode Islanders the word Plantations in the official title of our state (State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) carries the emotional and spiritual weight of one of the saddest periods of our history, a weight mostly carried by our Black, Brown and Indigenous neighbors because regardless of its intended definition at inception, the word Plantations is linked to the enslavement, abuse and the murder of people of color and the vestiges of this history are reflected in the systemic racism that is still very much alive today.

In the long term we must be committed to work toward changing unjust systems and removing the many obstacles in the way of achieving true liberty and justice and equal opportunity for all.
In the short term, we have an opportunity on November 2 to amend the name of our state to symbolize this commitment and better reflect who we are and who we want to be, by permanently removing the words ‘and Providence Plantations’ from our state name.

* Wikipedia

** Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution by Charles Rappleye, Simon and Schuster Books 2006

Possible Action Steps


Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, The Slave Trade, and The American Revolution by Charles Rappleye, Simon and Schuster Books 2006


The coalition that is leading the fight to pass referendum to delete “and Providence Plantation” from RI State’s official name. See Facebook page: Remove Plantation from RI.


The Warmth of Other Sons by Isabel Wilkerson. Explore the impact of northern diaspora of southern slaves to northern states.


Vote Yes on Ballot Question 1 “Rhode Island Change Amendment” on changing the name.


Providence Journal Series: Race in RI Invisible Advantage of Whiteness, 9/24/2020 and the 2006 original series by Paul Davis, Unrighteous Traffick 2006