Historical accuracy won out last week when Rhode Island voters rejected an effort to shorten their state's name. As this morning's Globe reminded us, the smallest state has the longest official handle: Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. For activists who were trying to point out the state's pivotal, but often forgotten, role in the slave trade, the word "plantations" was an outrage — never mind that the word bore no relationship to the infamous cotton and sugar plantations of the Deep South.
But there's another problem: The activists also fixated on the wrong part of the state's name. "Rhode Island" has much more to answer for than "Providence Plantations" does.
Today's Rhode Island is the product of a long-ago union between Providence Plantations, the colony founded by Roger Williams on the New England mainland, and a previously separate colony centered on the island where Newport is located. There were some slaves in the Providence colony. But as this series from the Providence Journal makes clear, the real action was in Newport, whose vast shipping industry made it the slave-trading capital of the region.
When I was growing up in Rhode Island, grade-school history classes mostly left out the nasty stuff. So it's useful to dispel the idea that slavery happened entirely south of the Mason-Dixon Line. (By the way, the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at Boston Public Library is putting together a terrific Civil War exhibit that, when it debuts next spring, will shed more light on the tight economic links between North and South.)
In rejecting the name change, voters might have reached the right conclusion without actually thinking too hard about it; for many people, the long name is just a pleasant little quirk for a state that itself is a pleasant little quirk. But it never made sense to single out Providence Plantations as a symbol of slavery, when the people living on what was then called Rhode Island did so much more to perpetuate it.