Life on the Plantation

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was established by Royal Charter in 1663:

Because titles to these lands rested only on Indian deeds, neighboring colonies began to covet them. To meet this threat, Roger Williams journeyed to England and secured a parliamentary patent in March 1643-44 uniting the four towns into a single colony and confirming his fellow settlers’ land claims. This legislative document served adequately as the basic law until the Stuart Restoration of 1660 made it wise to seek a royal charter.

Dr. John Clarke was commissioned to secure a document from the new king, Charles II, that would both be consistent with the religious principles upon which the tiny colony was founded and also safeguard Rhode Island lands from encroachment by speculators and greedy neighbors. He succeeded admirably. The royal charter of 1663 guaranteed complete religious liberty, established a self-governing colony with local autonomy, and strengthened Rhode Island’s territorial claims. It was the most liberal charter to be issued by the mother country during the entire colonial era, a fact that enabled it to serve as Rhode Island’s basic law until May 1843.

To this day, the official name of the state is still the state of “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”, though the last half of the name has been forgotten by just about everyone for a very long time. Basically, the full name has been relegated to nothing but an interesting piece of trivia: the littlest U.S. state also has the longest name. So no one really thinks much about it. Well, except a few who want to officially drop the “Plantations.”

A group of Smith Hill legislators, along with members of the black community, believe it’s time for a name change that does not conjure up images of the slave trade.

“That we still have the word ‘plantation’ in our name is really a grave injustice and an insult to people in our community,” said Sen. Harold M. Metts, D-Providence.

He and other legislators, reviving a decades-old proposal, have introduced companion bills in the House and Senate to place a question on the next election ballot that asks voters whether they want to change the state’s official name to “Rhode Island.”

In years past the proposal has gone nowhere, with critics saying that the state’s name –– however flawed –– is part of the fabric of the Ocean State’s history.

But supporters say otherwise.

“We’re part of history and we’re changing that history and we don’t want to see that name anymore,” said fellow sponsor Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, at a news conference yesterday.

The proposal is much bigger than a name change, they said. It’s about making the state aware of its ties to slavery and moving forward, free of that burden.

“If we look at history, history is written for us to avoid the past and to move on,” said Dennis Langley, executive director of the Urban League of Rhode Island.

Their history is correct. Newport was a major slave port and Charles Rappleye’s Sons of Providence is a fine, recent work that covers both this and the role that the Brown family (founders of Brown University) had in the slave trade. In fact, Brown University has undergone a very public self-examination and has taken various steps to account for the fact that their foundations were built upon slavery. It is also true that some of the farms in the “South County” region of the state did operate with slave labor.

In Narragansett County, conditions favored large-scale farming, and here more than anywhere else in the North a system began to emerge that looked like the Southern plantation colonies. In parts of “South Country” (as Narragansett also was called), one-third of the population was black work force by the mid-18th century. That’s comparable to the proportion of slaves in the Old South states in 1820. Narragansett planters used their slaves both as laborers and domestic servants. William Robinson owned an estate that was more than four miles long and two miles wide, and he kept about 40 slaves there. Robert Hazard of South Kingstown owned 12,000 acres and had 24 slave women just to work in his dairy. The Stantons of Narragansett, who were among the province’s leading landowners, had at least 40 slaves.

In keeping with the usual pattern, a higher percentage of blacks meant a more strict control mechanism. South Kingstown had perhaps the harshest local slave control laws in New England. After 1718, for instance, if any black slave was caught in the cottage of a free black person, both were whipped. After 1750, anyone who sold so much as a cup of hard cider to a black slave faced a crushing fine of £30.

But the point is that the “Plantations” referred to in the original charter was a common appellation for “a new settlement or colony“. Obviously, the meaning of the word became associated with chattel slavery in the South and carries a negative connotation today. I completely understand that. But by pushing to remove “Providence Plantations” from the official name, by “changing that history”, proponents are being anachronistic in their application of the term.
They are also being impractical in these times. Like other states, Rhode Island is facing some serious fiscal difficulties–there are plenty of things that our politicians should be worried about besides a feel-good measure of limited appeal and utility. In addition, there are costs incurred by such a change (there are many plaques, stationary, etc. that contain the full name, which would have to be changed).
One attractive argument for dropping the name is because it is so little-used and unknown. So what’s the big deal, right? Well, there is the argument that this would be just the tip of the iceberg (ah yes, the “slippery slope.” I know, I know…)
But allow me to indulge…What about the City of Providence. I think many people would associate the word “Providence” with religion and one of the definitions of “Providence” is “A manifestation of the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures; an event ordained by divine direction.” The City of Providence is an official government entity. Should a government have a name that is so overtly religious? Or is that a history that needs to be changed, too?
Cross-posted at Spinning Clio

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13 years ago

These legislators would do their constituency a favor if they worked on programs to educate those they serve. The rep and senator, and their associates would better serve their students by making sure they have safe, decent schools and neighborhoods to go to. Where is the outrage about gang violence, and all that goes along with it. How about getting the parents to raise their children to bring them out of the cycle of poverty and violence, rather then keep them down.
The word plantation had been around long before slavery hit RI. Just because you don’t like a word doesn’t mean you erase it. There are plenty of words and sounds that bring back bad memories for all of us, but we don’t get all worked up about it. It’s important that we all remember our history, not eliminate it or make something out of it that doesn’t exist. From our history, I would like to think we know what not to do in our future. Slavery was a sad part of our history. If these legislators want to overcome hatred and ignorance, then they need to make sure their constituency makes use of the tools to bring them up and not keep them down. Now that would be racist.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
13 years ago

I domn’t give a tinker’s damn about the official name of the state.Who ever uses the whole name anyway?
I am just against this so that Almeida,Metts,and that incredibly annoying preachy Dennis Langley don’t get their way.I am tired of being lectured about racial issues by this chip on the shoulder crew.We now have a Black President and AG,two former Black Secretaries of State,a former Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,two former Black National Security Advisrs-want to keep going?Okay,two people accounted for 5 of these appointments and what does that say?It says that if you have the skills and work ethic you can be anything you want.
How many Asian Americans have ever held any of these posts?One.General Eric Shinseki was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.Do you hear Asian Americans whining?No.They’re too busy curing cancer and discovering subatomic particles,and even running restaurants.
These three complainers could be spending their energy trying to prevent high dropout rates among Black students just for starters.
They’re trying to make themselves look important by using a symbolic issue that has no practical value-it’s also an easy way to avoid addressing the really destructive problems that are robbing the youth in their community of the likeliehood of good outcomes in their lives.

Ragin' Rhode Islander
Ragin' Rhode Islander
13 years ago

Hey, leave it be – the name still fits.
Those of us here in the private sector are slaving away here on the Plantation so that Massuh Union can keep up the high livin’ in that big white house on Smith Hill.
It’s a cotton pickin’ shame.

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