******************** THIS BLOG HAS MOVED TO WWW.LEGALINSURRECTION.COM ********************

This blog is moving to www.legalinsurrection.com. If you have not been automatically redirected please click on the link.

NEW COMMENTS will NOT be put through and will NOT be transferred to the new website.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Is Rhode Island's Name Racist?

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.

Related Posts:
Is "Gobbledygook" Racist?
Saturday Night Card Game

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook


  1. Didn't that history professor leave out the fact the George Bush's ancestors were responsible for the slave trade in the Northeast?

    The facts may not support that contention, but we all know Bush WOULD have been responsible if he were around then and the Republicans back then (let's see, what were they called...?) were racisits.

    Complex history? Nah. This is 2009. Nothin' complex here. Keep moving along now.

  2. Perhaps we should change the name of Texas to, "So, so, so sorry and please lord this over us for eternity". After all, my state is responsible for not revealing to slaves that they were free, hence Juneteenth.

  3. I think this referendum will fall flat on its face. You know how Rhode Islanders are, they don't like change. Now if the general assembly would just focus on some of the real issues facing Rhode Island, including an unemployment rate that keeps climbing and is now at 13 percent.

  4. This thing with the Plantations is laughable. I'm gonna name our place Red Bird Plantations if it upsets them. :))

    BTW, 'they' may call themselves African Americans but we still call them blacks and they call us whites in the south. It's not considered a 'cut' just a skin color.

  5. 2470144 said...
    Didn't that history professor leave out the fact the George Bush's ancestors were responsible for the slave trade in the Northeast?

    The facts may not support that contention, but we all know Bush WOULD have been responsible if he were around then and the Republicans back then (let's see, what were they called...?) were racisits.

    Wow...a true fallacy known as affirming the consequent. Bush may have had a horrible habit of aiding liberals, but to say that he is racist....how, exactly do you draw this conclusion outside of your horrible argument?

  6. Just because the proponents of the name-change have an tendentious, tenuous grasp on history doesn't mean that they won't win at the ballot box.

    Indeed, wouldn't this be a low-cost way for Rhode Islander voters to prove they are, as a group, bien pensant and they hate racism so much they'll fight it even where it doesn't exist?

    I predict this initiative will pass. (Just a hunch.)

  7. A few years back, the British PC Patrol decreed that Liverpool street named after those who participated in the slave trade must be changed. Then they learned that Penny Lane, immortalized by the Beatles, was named after slave trader James Penny. So Penny Lane was spared, but other streets unsung by the Fab Four were not.


  8. Quirky? Yes, indeed.

    History buffs may even recall that Rhode Island did not send any delegates to the Constitutional Convention back in 1787 -- the only one of the original 13 that failed to do so. Then, in 1788, Rhode Island actually rejected the Constitution by popular referendum. But when faced with the prospect of being treated as a foreign government, it finally ratified the document on May 29, 1790 by an extremely narrow margin.

    By the way, over the years, I've won more than one wager by throwing down a challenge, betting someone they cannot name the State with the longest official name. They nearly all immediately think it must be one of the (four) "Commonwealth" states, and more often than not, they then quickly start counting letters on their fingers, and usually settle on neighboring Massachusetts.

    Lovely shoreline, though, I must say.

  9. Sad fact: Few beyond this blog know history - they just follow their emotions and emote their way through life. Call them on their lack of info and they call you an elitist academic or something of that nature. Continuing education and expanding knowledge are neither respected nor seen as goals these days. Everyone is worshiping at the temple of Political Correctness. It's just easier. No study required. Those with the loudest voices are the standouts.

  10. I was searching for political views of Rhode Island and was reading all of these posts. One extreme says racism still exist and the other states it was abolished.

    I sat here in wonder and asked myself as a Hispanic woman - 'Where do I fit in this spectrum of two extremes?' I guess I am the gray to both. However, I have to say racism still exists among groups, races, colors, nations, countries, states, etc. The right to enslave was abolished, but there are hearts still bound by this ancient ritual. It dates too far back to remember and history has been known to repeat itself.

    What I find peculiar is that some don't want to acknowledge that it does exist even within us. Question: If your son or daughter expresses her affection for another out of her race; would you so easily say: "Okay sweetie." I think not! There is the concern about his overall background: where he comes from, is he involved in criminal activity, is he interested in our fortune or inheritance, etc. Nonetheless, this concern should not be a question of race, but of concern for the well-being of your loved one (child or family).

    It dawns on us when we begin to ask all of these questions, but we ask these questions for specific races only. However, we forget that a simple man can be a great addition and that a rich and well-known man can be the worst addition to the family. Trust me - I know. Color and culture is beyond the point. Learning to accept differences is a real problem for some. We are a multicolored world - how can we exempt those that add color to our world. It is like taking every vibrant color away and leaving black and white. How colorless our world would be!

    Renaming a state: well, NYC wants to rename everything and any other state it can get its hands on too! I am a New Yorker and don't agree with many of the things that are approved, but I am just one voice, one person - right. Cynicism - no, realism - yes. It is not right for one to enslave another and it is wrong for a person to deprive another of their rights to humanity and right to life and the pursuit of happiness.

    No hard feelings....