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Rhode Island toys with changing its name to avoid slavery connotations

At least two major U.S. cities — St. Louis, Missouri, and Columbus, Ohio — are facing calls to change their names due to connections to controversial historical figures. Now an entire state is talking about changing its name over connotations of slavery.

What’s happening?

Rhode Island has long had the distinction of being both the smallest state in the union and the state with the longest official name: The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.

It’s the word “plantations” and its long ties to Southern slavery that have been the problem for those demanding the name change, as well as “Rhode Island’s deep involvement in the slave trade,” WPRI-TV reported.

The state’s Democratic governor, Gina Raimondo, signed an executive order Monday saying her office and all executive offices will henceforth use only “State of Rhode Island” in all official documents, websites, citations, and communications.

Raimondo’s order does not officially change the state’s name permanently, the New York Post said.

Such a change would require movement by the state legislature and a vote by the Ocean State’s citizens to amend the Rhode Island Constitution. That effort is being led by the state’s lone black senator.

State Sen. Harold Metts (D) introduced a bill Wednesday to give voters an opportunity to remove “plantations” from the state’s name and constitution, the Providence Journal reported.

Critics of the move have noted that the word “plantations” in Rhode Island in the 1600s — when the name was first created, even before the U.S. was formed — was referring to local farms, regardless of how people today understand it, WPRI noted.

For Metts, despite the actual context of the term, the word has too much historical ugliness to keep it around.

“Whatever the meaning of the term ‘plantations’ in the context of Rhode Island’s history, it carries a horrific connotation when considering the tragic and racist history of our nation,” Metts said, according to the Journal. “The images that come to mind when I hear the word ‘plantations’ are of the inhuman and degrading treatment of the African Americans who came before me, families ripped apart by slave sales, rapes and lynchings. It is a hurtful term to so many of us.”

The senator said the word is just a “painful reminder of our racist past” and should be erased.

Metts’ bill passed the state Senate unanimously and will be considered by the state House in late July, according to the Journal. Should it clear the House, the bill will be voted on by Rhode Islanders in November, WPRI said.

If that happens, it would be the second time the issue has been put before the voters. In 2010, a referendum to change the state’s name lost 78% to 22%.

What’s the name’s background?

The “plantations” portion of the name comes from the combination of the area’s name during the colonial days, Rhode Island, with multiple plantations in the area.

The most notable of those was the colony founded by Roger Williams — Providence Plantation, which included what is now the capital city of Rhode Island, according to the state’s website.

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