Voters to decide fate of state name

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – State Rep. Joseph Almeida doesn't have to look far when he wants a reminder of the state's official name.

Sitting in his Providence office on a recent weekday morning, Almeida reaches into his back pocket and takes out his official legislative ID.

"In the wallet, they give us a badge and on the badge all it says is Representative Joseph Almeida, State of Rhode Island," he says. "But on the ID card it says State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."

That last word, plantations, and its link to American slavery doesn't sit well with Almeida, who is of Cape Verdean descent.

"You got a black man and his picture under the word plantations," Almeida says. "I don't know. That doesn't make me feel too good at all-- at all."

Almeida has spent more than a decade trying to change the state's name. This year, because of a resolution he co-sponsored, voters will decide whether to remove the phrase "and Providence Plantations" from Rhode Island's official name.

"I know for a fact that our congressional leaders, when they're being introduced on the House and Senate floors, they're not being introduced as the representative or senator from the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," Almeida says. "Can you imagine if the Congressional Black Caucus had to hear these white legislators being introduced from a Providence Plantations here in the 21st century? No."

If the ballot question is approved, Almeida says he wants state paperwork to be printed on letterhead carrying the updated name. But his push to shorten the state name faces resistance from opponents who say the change would ignore history.

"The term plantations in it has zero to do with slavery," says Stanley Lemons, professor emeritus of history at Rhode Island College. "It has nothing to do at all with slavery."

Lemons says the term plantation was used in the 17th century to mean settlement. Lemons, who has taught state history and black history, adds the argument against Providence Plantations is also ironic if you know the history of slavery in Rhode Island.

"Providence Plantations was the part of Rhode Island that attempted to prevent slavery from taking root in the new colony," Lemons says. "It was Rhode Island that took the lead in slave trading. Aquidneck Island-- Rhode Island. The Rhode Island part is the slave trading part. That's where almost all the slave trading took place in this 18th century."

Some high profile politicians, including the four major candidates for governor, have also come out against the name change. When asked about the ballot question in a televised gubernatorial debate, independent candidate Lincoln Chafee questioned whether the change is even allowable under the U.S. Constitution.

"No, our name is listed in the U.S. Constitution, it would take a constitutional amendment," Chafee said.

"There's absolutely nothing in the Constitution that says the states can't change their names," says Jared Goldstein, who teaches constitutional law at Roger Williams University. "Because the Constitution doesn't speak to that question the states retain that power. If Rhode Island wants to change its name to The State of Broccoli, the U.S. Constitution doesn't stop it from doing it."

But whether the change is constitutional could be irrelevant if Rhode Islanders fail to approve the ballot question. At Providence's Kennedy Plaza, Edgar Jensen says he sees no need to remove the term plantations.

"It's part of the identity of the state," he says. "I've become accustom to it and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is how I know to address my state."

Down from Jensen, waiting for a bus, Steve Mileska disagrees.

"I think it should be changed," Mileska says. "Because there's not Providence Plantations, that's rooted in racism. So why not? I'll vote to change it if I vote."

If voter turnout is like it was in similar past elections, nearly 400,000 voters could cast ballots this year, and it will be up to them whether the phrase "and Providence Plantations" stays or goes.