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Smallest State Keeps Longest Name

Voters in "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" overwhelmingly rejected an initiative to drop the "Plantations" part.

photo of Ben Terris
November 3, 2010

A dramatic election night may have changed the course of a nation, but voters in one state were clear in rejecting one bit of change. Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country, will continue to have the longest name.

The Ocean State's official name is "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," and on Tuesday citizens voted overwhelmingly against a ballot initiative that would have dropped the latter part of the handle. While few outside the state know about the eight-word name, there has been an internal debate raging for more than 20 years about changing it. At issue is the claim of some citizens that the “Plantations” in the name conjures up images of slavery.

“What do you think of when you hear the word 'slavery'?” Anastasia Williams, a state representative who supported a name change, asked National Journal. “It’s one of those images, like a swastika, that has negative connotations for people of color.”

 

At the other end of the spectrum, Al Gemma, a state representative who publicly opposed the bill, said that changing the name of the state would be akin to “executing a man for a crime he did not commit.”

“There wasn’t even slavery in Rhode Island when the place was named,” he said. “The word ‘plantation’ just referred to the fact that colonists had planted a community there. There was nothing racist about it, and to change the name would be to make an innocuous word represent something dark.”

Providence Plantations was founded in 1636, and it wasn’t until 1652 that the first slaves came to Rhode Island.

Gemma said that he wasn’t opposing the bill for himself, but rather on behalf of Roger Williams, the prominent 17th-century theologian who founded the colony that would become Rhode Island.

“Roger Williams would be broken-hearted by a name change,” he said.

While Gemma said that history should be sacrosanct and should "never be revised," University of Rhode Island history professor Marie Jenkins Schwartz said that history is in fact a living, breathing organism.

“History isn’t something that is static,” Schwartz said. “Most people think it is because events either happened or they didn’t, but history is all about how we frame these stories.”

To her, the debate was between two legitimate sides: one that wanted to preserve a certain history and the other that wanted the state to evolve. While Schwartz was reluctant to choose a side, she did make it clear that history should only be a guide, not a deciding factor, on issues such as these.

“You can’t just open a history book like a book of law and have it tell you exactly what you want to do,” she said.

Even though the name change did not pass, Williams said all was not lost.

“It was a really good conversation piece,” she said. “It got people talking about an important topic that people don’t necessarily usually feel comfortable talking about.”

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