Rhode Island Ballot Referendum: What's in a Name?

Rhode Island State Seal

Rhode Island State Seal

To Harold Metts some words simply sound racist, and "plantation" is one of them. "When I hear the word plantation, my mind is flooded with the negative thoughts associated with slavery: the injustice, the women being raped, families being torn apart," the Rhode Island State Senator told a reporter, as he walked in front of the State House in Providence.

And that's exactly why Metts is supporting a ballot referendum to change the name of Rhode Island, which is actually officially called "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."

"Rhode Island's official name is on all the stationery on the citations that we give out at the State House," said Metts. "When I give an award to some community person that did an outstanding job I have to read ‘State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.'" 

Some state Republicans call the ballot referendum ridiculous at best and, at worst, politically motivated.

"This absurdity," says Giovanni Cicione, "of this ballot question is just again an attempt to distract people by focusing on a race issue that isn't even a race issue."

Cicione heads the state Republican Party. He points out the name of Providence Plantations preceded slavery in the new world. "The phrase plantations was used before there was a Rhode Island," he said. "The pilgrims lived at Plymouth plantations. Are we going to accuse the pilgrims of racism because they had that name for their community?"

In fact, Rhode Island's charter was enacted in 1663, decades before the first African slaves arrived in 1696.

"This is political correctness run amuck, " said Cicione.

Furthermore, he says Rhode Island's elongated name has traditionally given state residents a quick comeback to those who would disparage its size.

"Rhode Island is the smallest state but we've always had the longest name," he said. "No other state has so many letters in the alphabet."

Metts, whose mother's ancestors were slaves in South Carolina remains unimpressed. "The length of name shouldn't [matter,]" he said. "If anything, by following through and people voting for this referendum, it will show that we are a state of healing...of caring."

He also points out the Swastika, at one point, represented something positive. "But it's now a symbol of hate, just as plantations are a symbol of slavery."

Metts says Rhode Island needs to take responsibility and face its past. "We need to change our name so we can move forward," he said.

Douglas Kennedy currently serves as a correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC). He joined the network in 1996 and is based in New York.