Plantation Fight: The Veiled Threats Begin
According to Senator Harold Metts, the people of Rhode Island had better drop their ‘Plantations’ or they’ll be viewed as racists by the rest of the country. Metts, as reported by the Providence Business News, raised the specter of economic retribution should voters reject the removal of “Providence Plantations” from the official name of the state by likening the potential negative economic impact of keeping “Plantations” to that felt by Arizona when it held out against adopting the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Metts, D-Providence, says he could see the same thing happening in Rhode Island, if voters reject the chance next year to shorten the state’s official name – the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations – dropping the “Providence Plantations,” which for many has become a controversial reference to slavery.
With all the national news coverage such a decision would receive, Metts said he wouldn’t be surprised if the state attracted fewer conventions and fewer tourists.
And exactly why would there be so much news coverage? It’s not going out on a limb to say that, up until now, 99% of the U.S. population (and probably 50% of Rhode Islanders!) had absolutely no idea about the “Providence Plantations” part of the name (much less that Rhode Island is even a state–I’ve been hearing about “Rhode Island, NY” for a long time). Until now, I think the reaction by most people when hearing about “Plantations” was the rhetorical “Huh.” The irony is that Metts et al have set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to this bit of “consciousness raising” about a heretofore unrealized problem.
The most pragmatic argument against this issue is that there are other, more pressing matters that demand our legislators attention over a piece of feel-good legislation. But I also don’t like the minimal gain that could be realized at the price of real history (not the naive misreading of it). URI historian Scott Malloy explained to the PBN the blinkered history being perpetrated:
The reference to Providence Plantation actually dates back to the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams when he settled in the area that is now Providence – after his banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
He called the settlement Providence Plantations in reference to the large amounts of acreage available for farming…Molloy said he could understand the minority community’s desire to remove the word “plantations” from the state’s name, particularly when considering Rhode Island was the “most notorious state in New England for the slave trade” in the 1700s.
But he added that “plantation” did not have its more contemporary connotation to slavery in the 1600s, when there were few if any slaves in Rhode Island. “It was a common usage in the British Empire,” he said.
“Some things ought to be righted, but this one doesn’t deserve it,” Molloy said.
It’s a bit of historical quirkiness that lives on, nothing more. Like Molloy, I understand the motive behind the effort to remove “Plantations.” I just don’t agree. Further, I don’t like the implication that opposing the removal of “Plantations” means anything other than a desire to maintain the traditional appellation of the place I live. It’s really as simple as that.