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What Is No Longer In A Name: Rhode Island Official Docs Shed Racially Loaded Moniker

The official name of the smallest U.S. state is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Some of its residents have been trying for the past three decades to drop the phrase "and Providence Plantations," which they consider an offensive reminder of the state's once-dominant role in the trade of enslaved Africans.

That name-changing drive got a boost on Monday. Spurred by weeks of local protests over the death of George Floyd, the Black Minnesotan who perished after a white policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo announced that the offensive phrase would no longer appear on official state documents.

"This morning I signed an executive order removing the phrase Providence Plantations from gubernatorial orders and citations, all executive branch agency websites, all official correspondence, and state employee pay stubs and paychecks," said Raimondo, a second-term moderate Democrat who is the state's first female governor.

"We can't ignore the image conjured by the word 'plantation,' " she told a cheering crowd at a news conference held at a Providence public park. "We can't ignore how painful that is for Black Rhode Islanders to see that and have to see that as part of their state's name."

"It's demoralizing!" shouted a man in the audience.

"It's demoralizing," Raimondo agreed. "It's a slap in the face, it's painful."

At the event, the governor won praise for ordering the change from one of the young Black organizers of the recent street protests.

"This is what we wanted. This is what gives me hope to continue," said 16-year-old Faith Quinnea. "Knowing our voices were heard and respected is a different kind of joy. I'm proud to stand here and say I participated in the difference."

It was the theologian Roger Williams — an advocate of religious tolerance and the abolition of slavery — who, as the founder of the Rhode Island colony in the 17th century, is believed to have included the Providence Plantations phrase in the name of what was then a newly established British colony. At the time, the word "plantation" referred to a new settlement and didn't connote an agricultural estate cultivated by slaves.

By the mid-18th century, Rhode Island not only dominated slave trade in North America, but it also had a higher proportionof slaves in its population than any other Northern colony.

Many worked on farms in what at the time was known as Narragansett County. "Eventually, these farms grew to be plantations comparable to those in America's southern colonies," writesSalve Regina University adjunct professor Fred Zilian, "and with these plantations a class of 'Narragansett planters' emerged."

Rhode Island's Democratic-led Senate has already passed a resolution that would put the permanent removal of the "and Providence Plantations" phrase on the ballot in November, and its Democratic-led House is expected to follow suit.

In a joint statement, President of the Rhode Island Senate Dominick Ruggiero and Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattielo on Monday endorsed the name change.

"We both support placing on the ballot this November the decision whether to remove the word 'and Providence Plantations' from the state's name," the legislative leaders wrote. "In the meantime, we know this is an important issue to a lot of people, so the General Assembly will be removing the reference to 'Plantations' from Assembly documents."

But Jorge Elorza, the mayor of Providence, cautioned that the name change effort could once again be stymied at the ballot box, as it was in 2010.

"We know that 10 years ago when this was put to the voters, it failed pretty bad," Elorza told the crowd gathered at Billy Taylor Park. "That means that statewide, it is an unpopular thing to do, but it is the right thing to do and because of that, I give you all the credit, Governor."

For protest organizer Quinnea, the governor's removal of the offensive phrase from official documents is not enough.

"This is just a small taste of what victory looks like," she told Raimondo. "So please join me in my next project, to get Rhode Island to add Black history into the educational curriculum."

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Corrected: June 22, 2020 at 8:00 PM AKDT
An earlier version of this story said it was ironic that Roger Williams, who advocated for the abolition of slavery, included the words "Providence Plantations" in the name of the then-new colony. At the time, the word "plantation" referred to a new settlement and didn't connote an agricultural estate cultivated by slaves.
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.