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Push to Remove Racist Names Draws Support — And Backlash

Push to Remove Racist Names Draws Support — And Backlash
Stateline Oct23
The Rhode Island seal decorates a podium as Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo looks on during a June news conference announcing the removal of the phrase "Providence Plantations" from the state's formal name in official documents and websites. Americans are grappling with eliminating terminology judged to be derogatory to people of color.
David Goldman/The Associated Press

For more than two decades, Black residents of Rhode Island have argued that the official name of their state, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” connotes slavery and should be changed.

It’s a “hurtful term” that “conjures extremely painful images for many Rhode Islanders,” said Democratic state Sen. Harold Metts, who traces his family lineage to a plantation in Virginia and is the only Black man in the Senate.

Metts sponsored a bill to amend the state constitution to remove “Providence Plantations” from the official state name. Rhode Island voters will decide in November, but Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo already has issued an executive order removing the phrase from official state documents, websites and paystubs.

Citing the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, Raimondo said Rhode Island must do more to fight racial injustice. “Plantation” is a word “associated with the ugliest institution that our country has ever had,” she said at a news conference. “That’s why I think it’s time — it’s past time — to get rid of it.”

But opponents say it doesn’t make sense to apply today’s standards to historical figures and phrases.

“Unnecessary and inadvisable,” Patrick T. Conley, a retired Providence College history and constitutional law professor, author and the state historian laureate, said in an interview. He noted that in the 17th century, when the Rhode Island colony received its royal charter, the word plantation meant a settlement, not what it means today.

“History is history, and we shouldn’t try to impose today’s standards on the past,” said Conley, who hopes the amendment fails again. He dismisses the movement to rename offensive places as “a craze — part of the whole rewriting of our history.”

From Boston to Austin, from tiny islands off the coast of Maine to majestic mountain peaks in Colorado and California, Americans are scrubbing the names of Confederates, slaveholders and avowed racists from streets, schools and public spaces and eliminating terminology judged to be derogatory to Black people, Native Americans and other minorities.

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said in an interview that changing demographics and community values should prompt people to reconsider who should be honored. He suggests putting names of buildings and streets up for reconsideration every 25 years. The state, city or county would hold a referendum on whether to keep the names or change them.

“We are learning the history we thought happened didn’t happen the way we thought. That happens all the time,” Grossman said. “Revisionism isn’t lying or making it up. There’s new evidence.”

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But critics say renaming can go too far. At the end of August, a Washington, D.C., government task force recommended renaming, relocating or adding context to dozens of monuments, schools, parks and buildings in the city because the people for whom they were named were involved in slavery, encouraged the oppression of Black people and other communities of color or contributed to systemic racism.

The original review named federal memorials and statues including the Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial. Washington and Jefferson were slaveholders. But Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser later emphasized that the city does not have jurisdiction over federal monuments, and said she was surprised they were included.

The review also cited a Benjamin Franklin statue, which is federal property, as well as a school named for Franklin. His inclusion highlights the complexities of the issue: Franklin did own enslaved people at one point in his life, but he later became an outspoken abolitionist.

The White House issued a statement in response to the review, accusing Bowser of “repeating the same left-wing narrative used to incite dangerous riots: demolishing our history and destroying our great heritage.”

“President Donald J. Trump believes these places should be preserved, not torn down; respected, not hated; and passed on for generations to come,” the statement said.

Grossman sees a bright line between those who committed treason by taking up arms against the United States for the right to own other human beings and those who owned slaves earlier in history. Removing monuments to Confederates “is a no brainer,” he said, adding they can be relocated to museums.

“The issue of individuals who owned slaves but were memorialized for meaningful accomplishments in their lives,” Grossman said, “is a far more complicated issue and should be addressed by conversations with historical experts and relevant communities.”

Rhode Island Tries Again

Rhode Island has tried changing its name before. State legislators proposed dropping “Plantations” in 2000 but the idea didn’t catch on. In 2010, the legislature approved a ballot amendment that voters overwhelmingly defeated — with 78% opposed to a name change and 22% in favor.

“I feel more confident than I did 10 years ago,” Metts said in an interview. “People are more aware of history and aware of the plight of the African American people.”

An online exhibition by Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library explains: “Rhode Island played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves — they had more per capita than any other New England state — but they also entered with gusto into the trade. By the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.”

Three years ago, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of a counter-protester inspired activist Kevin Peterson in Boston to begin a campaign to rename Faneuil Hall, which he says embodies “the racism and systematic oppression in this city.”

Faneuil Hall, also called the Cradle of Liberty for the many historic events there, is owned by the city and has a visitors’ center operated by the National Park Service. Peter Faneuil, one of Boston’s wealthiest merchants in the 18th century, proposed a marketplace in 1740 and paid for the building. He was a slaveholder and slave trader.

Renaming Faneuil Hall is “metaphor for addressing cultural racism in the city,” said Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, an advocacy group focusing on civic education and electoral justice.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, a Democrat, said in June he opposes the name change.

“If we change the name of Faneuil Hall, 30 years from now, we'll forget what happened there,” Walsh said at a news conference at City Hall. “I think there are certain parts of our history that we should use and learn from, so I’m not in support of changing the name of Faneuil Hall.”

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To David Harris, managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, “Keeping these names is a way of normalizing the horrors of our history.”

Visitors to Faneuil Hall “don’t even know it’s named for a person. That’s how deeply buried our troubled past is,” Harris said in an interview.

He co-wrote an essay calling for a public conversation about renaming Faneuil Hall but stopped short of endorsing a change. The headline erroneously said the authors were calling for a name change.

“We said we need to have this conversation. By having a conversation, the public has a voice in the decision,” he said.

“I don’t want to pretend it’s as important to change a name as to change a policy,” Harris said, adding, “but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do both.”

That conversation is also beginning in Austin, Texas. Natasha Harper-Madison, the only Black member of the Austin City Council, sponsored a resolution in July directing the city manager to begin the process of renaming city assets “dedicated to white supremacy, Confederate history or have tangential ties to the Confederacy.”

“This has always been an important matter but we’re experiencing a wave of accountability that we’ve never seen before,” Harper-Madison said in an email. “Austin prides itself on being a city at the forefront of the future and we can’t do so while holding on to controversial vestiges of the past.”

Naming Mountains

Renaming streets, highways, parks and buildings often falls under local and state jurisdiction, while renaming natural features can require federal approval to be included on federal maps and other products.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names, established by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890, approves initial names and renames of natural features. Anyone can request a name change online, but the process can take years as the board seeks agreement from local governments, citizen groups and Native American tribes.

“It’s not just a matter of someone calling and saying, `You need to change that name,’” Jennifer Runyon, a geographer and researcher for the board, said in an interview. “We tell everyone what we’re looking for is local acceptance.”

Over the past five years, the board has received about 135 renaming requests because an existing name is racist or derogatory — 27 in the last year, Runyon said.

Media coverage of renaming efforts plus people being stuck at home during the pandemic may have boosted interest a bit, she said.

Jeff Davis Peak, a Sierra peak in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in eastern California, was named for the president of the Confederacy even though he had no association with the area. Confederate sympathizers reportedly had once lived nearby.

The board first received a renaming request from a resident of San Francisco in 2018. It was amended several times before local and state entities reached a consensus on a new name, Runyon said.

In July, the federal board approved Da-ek Dow Go-et Mountain. Da-ek Dow Go-et is the Washoe tribe word for “saddle between points.”

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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, in July revived the Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Board to handle a growing interest in renaming places. The state board had dissolved after the long-time state archivist retired in 2016.

The federal board has a backlog of 16 name change requests for Colorado, three proposing different new names for Mount Evans. The 14,130-foot peak is named for John Evans, a territorial governor in the 1860s who helped facilitate the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864 in which about 150 people, mostly women and children from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, were killed. Evans was forced to resign but remained prominent during his lifetime.

“I’m not going to make a judgment” on renaming Mount Evans yet, Colorado state Rep. Perry Will, a Republican and one of three legislators on the advisory board, said in an interview. “Counties and municipalities need to be involved, plus we need input from Native Americans.”

Will spent 43 years as a state game warden before being appointed to fill a vacant state House seat in February. He is running for a full term representing a district in conservative, rural, northwest Colorado.

“I’ll be quite honest. My constituents would say, `Leave it alone,’” Will said. “I do hear from the lion’s share of my constituents, ‘It’s been named this for so long, don’t go changing everything.’”

But Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat who represents a Metro Denver county and is on the advisory board, said the mountain should be renamed.

In March, Benavidez’s bill to repeal the Columbus Day state holiday was enacted. Colorado instead will now honor Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini, a nun who established an orphanage, summer camp and other facilities for girls in the early 1900s, on the first Monday in October.

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