Rhode Island to change 'painful' state name associated with slavery

"We can't ignore the image conjured by the word 'plantations,'" Gov. Gina Raimondo said.
The seal of the State of Rhode Island adorns a lectern at a news conference where Gov. Gina Raimondo announced an executive order removing the phrase "Providence Plantations" from the state's name in official documents on June 22, in Providence.
The seal of the State of Rhode Island adorns a lectern at a news conference where Gov. Gina Raimondo announced an executive order removing the phrase "Providence Plantations" from the state's name in official documents on June 22, in Providence.David Goldman / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo has issued an executive order stripping the word "plantation" — a loaded term associated with slavery — from official state documents and symbols.

The state seal, found on government buildings and the state letterhead, includes an anchor, the word "hope" and the phrase "the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."

"We can't ignore the image conjured by the word 'plantations,'" Raimondo told reporters Monday in announcing the order. "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."

One of America's original 13 colonies, Rhode Island traces its roots to Providence Plantations, a settlement established by Roger Williams.

In its most narrow definition, the word refers to a "group of plants and especially trees under cultivation" or "a settlement in a new country or region," according to Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

But the more recognized secondary interpretation of "plantation," as an "an agricultural estate usually worked by resident labor," has more disturbing overtones.

In recent examples of the word's use as a noun, Merriam-Webster on Tuesday cited stories about Nancy Green, a woman who was born into slavery and later went on to be the face of Aunt Jemima syrup, and the movie "Gone With the Wind," set on a Georgia plantation before and during the Civil War.

Raimondo is a Democrat, and Rhode Island GOP chairwoman Sue Cienki said the governor has to go to voters to change the state's formal name and seal.

"I certainly understand her sentiment for wanting to change it, but I don't agree with the way she went about it by doing it by executive order," Cienki told NBC affiliate WJAR in Providence.

In 2010, the state's voters soundly rejected Question 1, which asked if the official name, "State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," should be changed to simply "Rhode Island."

A representative for Raimondo on Tuesday agreed that it would take voter action to take "plantation" out of formal state titles.

But Raimondo spokeswoman Audrey Lucas told NBC News that the governor is within her power to strip the word from "gubernatorial orders and citations, executive branch agency websites, official correspondence and state employee pay stubs."

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner on Monday announced that his office "will remove the words 'and Providence Plantations' from the state's checks" and "from our letterhead, citations" and other correspondence.

And in a joint statement by Rhode Island's top lawmakers, Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio and Speaker of the House Nicholas A. Mattiello, both Democrats, said: “We both support placing on the ballot this November the decision whether to remove the word ‘and Providence Plantations’ from the state’s name. 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."

In 1652, Rhode Island became the first colony to officially end slavery, though it wasn't aggressively enforced until abolition was written into the state constitution nearly two centuries later.