PROVIDENCE – A majority of Rhode Islanders whose votes had been counted by shortly after midnight supported a proposal to remove “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s official name.
With all precincts reporting but some mail and emergency ballots still to be counted, 52.8% of voters supported dropping the words from the state's name compared to 47.2% who opposed it, according to unofficial results from the state Board of Elections.
Election 2020: Live Local Results
In 2010, the last and only time the measure ever reached voters — despite legislative attempts dating back to 1975 — Rhode Islanders overwhelmingly rejected it: 250,466 to 71,162.
Supporters of the name change had hoped that this year’s national focus on racial injustice and the controversial killings of several Black people by police around the country would persuade voters that the phrase they saw as offensive for its present-day connection with slavery should be eliminated.
Opponents of the measure, however, said the word “plantation” had no association with slavery when Roger Williams settled Providence in 1636. Then, the word referred only to a tract of land, or a farm. They argued “Providence Plantations” was history and worth preserving.
The two arguments played out in voting booths – and, in the case of Donal and Marlene Fahey, of Cumberland, in their car.
The married couple left the Community Elementary School on Tuesday morning having voted differently on the ballot question.
“I voted for it,” said Donal. “I understand both sides but this whole Black Lives Matter [movement] and the killing of folks is just too big of a topic” to ignore.
But Marlene Fahey said, “I guess I’m a traditionalist, so I rejected it. I just don’t see the connection” between the word and any offensiveness. And besides, she typically rejects most ballot questions “unless it’s something I feel really passionate about.”
Dozens of people polled across the state Tuesday gave varying reasons for why they supported or opposed removing plantations from the state name.
Some supported it, not because it meant much to them personally, they said, but because it offended other Rhode Islanders. Others favored the name change, they said, because in this moment of racial reckoning it was time for Rhode Island to rid itself of a phrase imbued with racial subjugation.
Jessica Medeiros, 42, a business owner from Lincoln, said she didn’t realize the hurt the word plantation caused some people until recently, “so I was glad to vote to have it removed,” she said. “I want everyone in this country and this state to feel welcomed and treated as an equal.
Opponents of the measure offered equally varying reasons for rejecting the proposal.
Some said “plantations” was part of history and worth preserving, while others said they did not want to kowtow to what David Bogdanski, 59, an insurance agent from Lincoln, called “an angry mob.”
“I don't understand what's so wrong about it,” he said.
Still, the measure’s passage wouldn’t surprise him: “There's a lot of sheep,” Bogdanski said. “I would think it's a bad thing, but I'm not going to burn cities or anything like that. I'm a Republican. We don't do stuff like that. That's the Democrats."
In Hopkinton, Monica Tutko, 40, who works in animal control, said she voted in favor of the name change even though “it doesn’t carry any weight with me either way.” But Tutko said if others viewed the word negatively, “then I’d rather right that.”
In Westerly, Kathy Traskos, 65, an accountant, voted against the measure.
“I think it’s a ridiculous thing to do,” she said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with racism or anything. It’s been the name of the state forever, and I just don’t believe it has any effect on anyone really.”
Antonio Giorno, 45, a senior planner, felt the same way as he prepared to vote in Westerly.
“If you go back and look at the actual history behind [the word], it’s not necessarily the same as what was going on down South,” in terms of slavery, he said. “I’ve always enjoyed it because being a true Rhode Islander, I’ve always said ‘Hey, we’re the smallest state with the largest name,’ so we kind of had that as kind of a talking point when it comes to Rhode Island history…”
The push for the name change had some big supporters.
Gov. Gina Raimondo and General Assembly leaders all struck the word plantations from their official documents this summer, as did Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. Raimondo said the word was associated with “the ugliest institution” in the nation’s history.
The Rhode Island Foundation spearheaded a nonprofit group advocating for the change with an initial $75,000 grant. The group was led by state Rep. Anastasia Williams, a Providence Democrat, former Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch and former House Finance Committee Chairman Antonio Pires.
For Pires, his advocacy for the name change represented a personal change of heart. Twenty years ago he was one of the legislators voting against putting the question before voters. Pires said he didn’t then have the same sensitivity to the issue as he does now.
Elizabeth Matczak, 23, of Westerly and a librarian, said the time had come to change the state’s name, just as a practical matter.
“I’ve lived in Rhode Island my entire life and I don’t think I’ve ever been like, ‘Hi, yeah, I live in Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations.’ Nobody says that.” Besides, said Matczak, “We’re not in Colonial time periods anymore. We don’t have slave states.”
At the Providence polling place at 552 Academy Ave., Micki Searight, a 50-year-old therapist, said she was voting for the name change because “I think we need to make gestures that are healing ... and a constant reminder in our state name, I don't think it speaks to that healing and moving forward."
But Lenny Demers, 58, and his wife, Nicea Demers, 57, saw it differently.
"Plantations in its context simply means colony or a large swath of land," he said.
"We very much don't want our history changed,” she said.
"If the state votes to change the name of the state, this is what elections are for,” said Nicea Demers. “You might not like it but we still live in a country that allows you to have a part. We will accept that. We might be saddened by it, but maybe we'll work to reeducate people about our history. But this is America."
With reports from Brown University journalism students Liv Simmons, Olivia George, Kayla Guo and Aida Sherif