Letter | What is in a name? In the case of Providence Plantations plenty starting with tolerance

open letter newport ri

What is in a Name? In the case of Providence Plantations plenty starting with tolerance. 

How many citizens know that in 1652 Providence Plantation passed America’s first anti-slavery legislation or that two signatures on the Plantation Agreements were women, extraordinary in that day, 1640. Roger Williams was closer to the native people than anyone of his time and in 1654 he wrote in a letter to Providence, describing his vision that he wanted “to keep up the name of a people, a free people, not enslaved to the bondages and iron yokes of the great.”   

Williams views on freedom and equality are legendary. He learned the language of indigenous people and sought to purchase the land from them.  As a reminder, Providence Plantations was founded separate from Rhode Island (which was the name of Aquidneck Island), and Providence Plantations was governed by the principles of liberty and the separation of church and state.  It is Williams’ thoughts on freedom that are in our nation’s Bill of Rights. Down the road, the smallest state obtained the longest name when Rhode Island merged with Providence Plantations.  

I understand the issues that Senator Metts raises and respect how feels regarding his proposal to change the full name of our State. He references images of the plantations in Virginia where his grandmother lived.  Providence Plantations is not that, in fact it is the opposite of that. 

In Williams’ day, the word ‘plantation’ was a synonym for ‘colony’ or ‘settlement’ and ‘Providence’ was used to indicate that something was under the protective care of God. Given these definitions, the name ‘Providence Plantations’ indicates a place of social acceptance, religious freedom, and ethnic diversity. The name is not a reference to the plantations that were built later in the South and used the labor of enslaved people. 

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It is important to honor both the legacy of Roger Williams and the ideals upon which he founded Providence Plantations. His vision should be preserved for future generations. 
The proposal to change the State name is a misguided and superficial band aid that misses the point and is not helpful in our quest to solve the issues of racial injustice.  

We should reflect on the sad fact that the slave trade flourished here on Rhode Island based ships but that is not a reflection of the Providence Plantations portion of the territory’s name but contrary to it. 

For those who argue it is like the confederate flag, it is not. In that case people who fought under the flag seceded from our union, committed treason and took up arms against the US while in the process supporting an unjust and immoral system. 

Hopefully the proposed name change will lead a greater understanding of our founding father’s vision and inspire us to do substantive work to improve racial and social justice in our society and to uphold the beliefs of tolerance and freedom upon which our State is founded.

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Anthony M. Iacono
Newport