As an out-of-stater, I always knew Rhode Island as just that: Rhode Island. It wasn’t until this week that I became aware of the full state name, including the now well-known and soon-to-be-defunct addition: “and Providence Plantations.”
In a moment of increased racial awareness, it was only a matter of time before the state’s full name came to light and became a political issue. Governor Gina Raimondo quickly signed an executive order to remove “Providence Plantations” from state documents, and mused on putting the formal name change on the ballot in November.
“We have to acknowledge our history,” Raimondo said in a press conference. “But we can acknowledge our history without elevating a phrase that’s so deeply associated with the ugliest time in our state and in our country’s history.”
“We can’t ignore the image conjured by the word plantation,” Raimondo said.
Raimondo’s executive order received wide-spread coverage, with a front-page Moment on Twitter and articles in the New York Times, USA TODAY, CBS, The Guardian and People, among others.
Even state Republicans stood by the intent of the order, while disagreeing with the way it was carried out.
“We understand and appreciate the Governor’s intent,” Rhode Island House Republican leader Blake Filippi said in a statement. “However, it is the People’s right to change the Rhode Island Constitution, not the Governor through executive order.”
Raimondo’s executive order met the moment. While the history of “Providence Plantations” in the state name may not be directly racist — Rhode Island was the first colony to abolish slavery, in 1636, according to the New York Times, although evidence shows that slavery persisted in the state long after its abolition — the connotations of the word are clear.
By removing “Providence Plantations” from state documents, Raimondo is acknowledging the pain caused by the word.
Simply waiting until November to determine the issue at the ballot box altogether would not be meeting the moment. Refusing to lead with an executive order would mean letting this moment pass by without the appropriate actions taken. Instead, Raimondo has acted appropriately.
Raimondo also did not step outside her bounds. The governor has punted on the more entrenched issue of changing the state name formally, an issue that resoundingly lost in a 2010 referendum. Given the precedent that Raimondo faces, with the most recent vote showing 78 percent of voters preferring the state name as-is, this is the correct choice.
But it is also the correct choice to make smaller and symbolic steps now. By removing “Providence Plantations” from state documents, Raimondo has met the moment.
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