Rhode Island's Referendum on its Forgotten History

Professor Joanne Pope Melish

The history of slavery in Rhode Island had been forgotten or overlooked for many years, even though its legacies remain very much with us. In this clip, Professor Joanne Pope Melish examines an advertisement for a runaway Rhode Island slave from 1731.

“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”
—William Faulkner

As it is in Faulkner’s novels, race is a constant thread in U.S. political discourse, sometimes lurking, sometimes front and center. Tomorrow, Rhode Island voters put it front and center. Ballot question number one asks voters whether to change the name of the state by removing the phrase “and Providence Plantations.”

The argument for changing the name is that it is a legacy from the era of slavery and the slave trade in Rhode Island, and profoundly insensitive and offensive. The arguments against changing the name are that “plantations” in the sense that they were used in Rhode Island have nothing to do with slavery. Another argument is that changing the name reduces opportunities to discuss Rhode Island’s history of slavery and slave trade.

I suspect that there are other reasons against changing the name lurking below the surface that are connected with questions of guilt, responsibility, and reparations.

Is changing the name of Rhode Island a means of repairing hurtful legacies or is it a misunderstanding of history? Or is it something else altogether?

The Choices Program published A Forgotten History: Slavery and the Slave Trade in New England to help high school students explore a topic that had not made it into textbooks. The work benefitted greatly from the efforts and scholarship of Brown’s Slavery and Justice Committee.

There are many more interesting short videos on the topic that explore slavery and the slave trade in New England, the changing historiography, and the legacies that this forgotten history have for us today.