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Rhode Island Senator Pushes To Remove 'Providence Plantations' From State's Name


The state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - many Americans are just finding out that this is the official name for the state of Rhode Island. And that's because on Monday, Gov. Gina Raimondo signed an executive order to cut out the words and Providence Plantations from some official state documents. But it will still be a part of the state's constitution - at least for now. This is an old fight for Rhode Island state Sen. Harold Metts, and he joins us now.

Welcome, Senator.

HAROLD METTS: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: My pleasure. You first raised this issue about 10 years ago when you sponsored the last effort to remove the word plantations from the state name. But 78% of Rhode Islanders voted against the change. So not only did it not pass, but it went down by a very large margin. Why do you think that happened 10 years ago?

METTS: Well, this battle was going on since about 1983, and Representative Joseph Almeida and I, 10 years ago, put forth the legislation. And you know, people didn't understand at the time how hurtful the word plantation are to people of African American descent. And there wasn't enough awareness about the whole issue. And I think that's really what happened to it because now there are people that I know that voted against it 10 years ago that told me this time they've changed their opinion, and they're going to vote for it. So I feel very encouraged.

MCCAMMON: I have to say I didn't know that the - and I'm a native Midwesterner, so maybe this is why. But I didn't know that plantations was in the name of the state of Rhode Island until this week. Why do you think people, at least at one time, were so attached to that?

METTS: Well, it's like anything else. Not to give my age away, but when I was in junior high school, the only thing I knew about Black history was two paragraphs about Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. So people weren't aware, and they assumed that plantations was a Southern thing until the history came out where they found out that our state was a major player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade where they had over a thousand voyages bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas. And people started realizing our role in that and that Rhode Island's hands weren't clean when it came to slavery. They just couldn't push it off to the South.

MCCAMMON: In the South today, you will still find lots of references to plantations - I mean, subdivisions that incorporate the word right into their names. Would you like to see the use of this word fade away altogether?

METTS: Well, yes, I would, but not to add to the negativity that we're seeing in the world and in the culture today. It needs to fade out as a vehicle for healing. Yes, we recognize the abuses of the past. Now let's do something about it. Let's make amends and bring some healing to the people that - whose ancestors had to go through that oppression.

And I mean, even my own family - I know what my mother's family - side of the family's from Virginia. And I know what plantation - this big plantation near Charlottesville, Va. - one of my great-aunts that - my grandmother's aunt that died at 106 - she told me some of the family history. So I know what plantation my family came from on my mother's side.

So, you know, we've got to move past that now. And we've all made, you know, the creed of the country about holding the truths to be self-evident. And we're all created equal, endowed by the creator with inalienable rights - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's about time - and Dr. King said it on many occasions - that we start living up to our creed.

MCCAMMON: Earlier this month a peaceful protest at the Rhode Island Statehouse drew thousands of people. You, of course, are the only Black senator in Rhode Island's state Senate currently serving and the only - and only the second in the state's history, as I understand it. What has the Black Lives Matter protest movement this summer - what has that mean to you?

METTS: It has meant that people want to see change. They have a passion for justice, young people in particular. I mean, it's like the civil rights movement and the sit-ins and the Freedom Riders. And now we're seeing our young people step forward, Black and white, looking for justice and equality with sensitivity toward other people. And when I saw that, it brought tears to my eyes. It was so refreshing. And I think we all need to follow the young people's example.

MCCAMMON: Rhode Island state Sen. Harold Metts, thank you so much for your time.

METTS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.