PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The smallest U.S. state has the longest name, and it's not sitting well with some in the George Floyd era.
Officially, Rhode Island was incorporated as The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations when it declared statehood in 1790. Now, opponents have revived an effort to lop off the plantations reference, saying it evokes the legacy of slavery.
An online petition aims to ask the state to shorten the name to just Rhode Island, a nonbinding campaign intended to generate momentum toward an eventual ballot question this November.
“In no way am I trying to erase history. But we shouldn’t glorify our shameful past,” Tyson Pianka, a University of Rhode Island sophomore who organized the petition drive, said in an interview.
“I've been trying to find a place where I can make a difference,” said Pianka, 20, who is half black. “Now is a perfect time to do it.”
Name alterations have been attempted before — most recently in 2010, when nearly eight in 10 voters rejected the shorter name in a referendum.
But supporters say they're feeling a fresh sense of urgency and determination as the nation reckons with Floyd's death and calls for an end to racial injustice. Floyd, who was black, was handcuffed when he died on Memorial Day at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer who pressed a knee into his neck long after he pleaded for air and then went limp.
“I have been listening to people of color ask for this for years,” said Nicole Purcell, who signed the petition. “The word ‘plantation’ and its historical implications needn’t be in our state name.”
Any change first would have to be approved by the Legislature before being put before voters as a constitutional amendment, and no bill to do so has yet been introduced, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's office said.
Historians say the term “plantations” in Rhode Island doesn't reflect slavery quite as profoundly as it might in the Deep South, but was more of a reference to land that was settled or colonized.
Even so, the state's ties to the slave trade are undeniably deep. Rhode Island merchants played a key role in the transatlantic slave trade, launching more than 1,000 voyages to buy and transport slaves from Africa to the Americas.
Brown University researchers say around 60% of all slave-trading voyages launched from North America came from Rhode Island.
“It’s all about the modern perception now,” said Pianka, the petition organizer. “If you ask anyone, ‘What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word ’plantations,' it’s slavery. If we can just remove that, it would send a message of unity.”