A grassroots movement to rename the full name of the state of Rhode Island has gained momentum following the increasing attention towards the Black Lives Matter movement and other current social justice issues.
Rhode Island’s official name is the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. A Facebook group, Remove Plantations from R.I., has come together to spread awareness about the name that many Rhode Islanders were unfamiliar with. Their goal is to remove “Providence Plantations” from the name.
The word “plantation” has connotations associated with slavery leading up to the Civil War. Plantations in the Deep South owned by white land owners tasked enslaved Black Americans to do the fieldwork, 60 percent of whom picked cotton, according to the Understanding Slavery Initiative.
Gov. Gina Ramundo signed an executive order on June 22 that removed “Providence Plantations” from state documents. Executive Order 20-48 also addresses Rhode Island’s ties to slavery and adds as a referendum to officially change the state’s name on the ballot in the upcoming November election.
Debbie Suggs, director of special populations at the University of Rhode Island, believes that the full history of Rhode Island may not be accurately taught throughout the Rhode Island schooling system. Suggs explained that during the colonial period, Rhode Island shared similarities with Southern states that relied on the labor of enslaved Black Americans.
“I was a history major in college at Rhode Island College,” Suggs said. “We really didn’t tip on this either…the prevalence of slavery in the state of Rhode Island. We certainly tipped upon the fact that it was a slave trading port, but never really learned that there were actually slave plantations in Rhode Island.”
Suggs’ involvement with the movement to change Rhode Island’s name is mostly through her role as an administrator due to her background in history. Outside of her duties in attending weekly meetings and working to get a vote on November’s ballot, she is also doing research to further the group’s knowledge on the issue. Through her research, she has discovered that a portion of URI property has been built over a slave plantation.
“URI is built on a plantation,” Suggs said. “And if you go down to the Ryan Center, you will see the slave burial ground from that plantation,” she said.
However, this has also become of personal interest to her as well.
“It means something deeper to people who are oppressed or who were oppressed,” Suggs said. “My father is three generations off of slavery. So my father’s grandfather was born into slavery. I’m three generations from slavery.”
Suggs emphasized the need for empathy in this situation.
“It’s a symbol,” Suggs said. “It means something and it might not be the same to you. It might not be the same to me, but it means something to somebody. And that’s important.”
Sal Montero, senior non-violence facilitator at the Non-Violence Institute, started the group Remove Plantations from R.I after studying and practicing non-violence for over 30 years. He wants to assure people that the conversation regarding the Rhode Island name change is not new among the social justice community in the state, but rather only now resurfacing into the light.
“Because of George Floyd, and because of everything that has led up to George Floyd, the shock that it sent through the world, it just reinvigorated the conversation,” Montero said.
He wants people to be willing to talk about their difference of opinion.
“It was much deeper than, ‘hey, let’s start a group to remove the name,’ it’s also a group that is about ‘hey, let’s talk about it, lets have that conversation.”
Montero has felt the influences of growing up his entire life in a city with the word “plantation” attached to it first- hand.
“I have awards that say “Providence Plantations” that I don’t even hang up because of the word ‘plantation,’” he said, “because that affects me. It affects the soul, the essence, of me as a Black person…it affects you as a person, a human being, and as a Black person,” he said.
The grassroots group’s efforts to bring awareness to this issue and gain followers not only within the Rhode Island community but also nationwide, Montero acknowledges the fact that real change is oftentimes “multi-systematic”.
“I can move the sign out the window that says ‘Whites Only’… but that doesn’t mean I feel the same way about it,” Montero said. “It’s not just about removing the sign, that’s a great first step and very important, but now let’s remove the hate behind those words.”
Despite the call to reform and change the name, there are Rhode Islanders who are on the other side of the debate, as was proven in 2010.
According to the Providence Journal, a vote issued to all Rhode Island precincts on Nov. 2, 2010 reported almost 78 percent of voters voted against changing the state’s official name, disregarding “the sentiments that the ‘State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations’ offends modern sensibilities about Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade.”
Montero argues that defenders of the name who believe it’s too historically significant to change should try to have a conversation with others on the opposing end about it.
“Why are people so against it?” Montero said. “Miseducation, history, comfortability. It’s not just one thing.”
“Is your comfort level to that point that you can’t even understand my discomfort?” he said, in reference to those unwilling to engage on the Facebook group’s page about their difference in opinions.
For the younger Rhode Island community, it can be argued that the history of their home state’s name hasn’t been important enough to teach within the classroom. Josephine Cooke, a 15-year-old high school student from Providence, believes it’s time to change that.
“I felt like I had almost been betrayed by my teachers and stuff because why not inform us on such a topic,” Cooke said.
She was shocked to find out the origin name.
“When I first heard it, I immediately just got upset,” Cooke said. “It’s really affecting me because what if I want to stay here in the future and build a family? I don’t want my kids growing up on a plantation being that I already did and I didn’t even know. I’m angry because it makes me feel like a slave, especially with the oppression that we already have. It makes me feel like a slave to the government, and I don’t want that in the name.”
Cooke, a youth facilitator for change, is working hard to make a difference and demand justice for her community. A proclaimed social justice advocate by her mentors and peers, she is making strides in raising awareness for this movement.
“I’ve gotten many people to sign petitions,” Cooke said. “I’ve gotten many people’s understanding and support throughout this journey.”
Cooke thinks it’s important that her peers take the time to educate themselves.
“What do you think it’s like to have been told all these stories about your ancestors being killed just because of their skin tone?” Cooke said. “And then to find out later on that where you were born and grew up is kind of a plantation. Please educate yourself.”
Over 10,900 people have signed a petition on Change.org to change the official name of Rhode Island as of July 29. Come November, Rhode Island voters will be the ones to decide if the state will remove the word “plantation” from its full name.
Suggs believes that regardless of your personal beliefs, the least you can do is dig deep.
“Just think beyond what you already know and dig a little deeper,” Suggs said. Sometimes you hate what you find. Sometimes you love what you find. You’re shocked or not shocked, and that might not even change your opinion of something. But at least you have the facts under your belt.”