July 14, 2009

An Excuse for History

Justin Katz

Brian Wilder conveys an interesting and timely history lesson on slavery in Rhode Island, but he ends with a peculiar conclusion:

Today it is strange, and perhaps convenient, how little most of us know about the extent of Rhode Island's involvement in slavery.

The least we can do is to dump a word that lost its innocence when Rhode Island and its despicable plantations became the hub of the equally despicable North American slave trade. We can't honestly claim ownership of our state's and nation's past glories if we deny our past evils.

The peculiarity comes in the fact that Wilder spends most of his essay edifying the reader about not only Rhode Island's participation, but its prominence in the slave trade — which he would not have had occasion to do had the word "plantations" not been included in the state's name. In other words, "dumping" the word would make it that much easier to forget and thereby deny the very history that Wilder claims to be essential for civic honesty.

Seems to me, he should advocate for leaving the state's full name as is, perpetuating the opportunity for historical exploration.

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I read tht article and was reminded of Mr. Ball's "Slaves in the Family". If I recall correctly, Mr. Ball was a failed art critic. Seeking a more remunerative endeavor he wrote a book about the slaves his family had owned and his experiences in begging their forgiveness. I attended a talk he gave at Brown a few years ago and was taken by the impression that his talk was an apologia. I also didn't receive the impression he was sincere, he was just in it for the money.

After his talk, I caught him aside and explained that my family background was similar. I told him that I received a lot of inquiries from Blacks seeking help with their genealogy. I was hoping he could offer a recommendation. Did he ever blow me off, no one was cutting into his game!

Mr. Wilder gave me the same impression. Google indicates that he is a frequent proponent of underdog causes.

If Mr. Wilder is black, he might want to research for roots in the area around Aliceville, Alabama.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 14, 2009 2:30 PM


I could not agree with you more. I think that proponents of the name change are really after is an admission of what ancestors of some of our state's residents encountered. But, leaving the name intact and continuing to teach the state's history is better for all of us. I had not known the extent of the south county plantations. I know both Robinsons and Hazards from the Peacedale and Wakefield area. The ProJo only cites Brian Wilder as a writer from Cranston. I am hoping that some of his history is to be published. I had found Charles Rappelye's book about the Brown brothers very good too.

Posted by: Phil at July 14, 2009 3:42 PM

I agree. Just a few days ago The Won "read & said" that the legacy of slavery needs to be taught in a meaningful way and not erased.

Posted by: dave at July 14, 2009 4:45 PM

I agree with Justin's view about this.

While I think it's important not to understate the roles of some prominent Rhode Islanders in the colonial slave trade, I think it's also not healthy or productive to exaggerate it either. Rhode Island had and still has ports. Ports are for ships. Ships were used to trade slaves, as well as molasses and rum, as part of what is historically referred to as the "triangle trade." The ships were owned by individual merchants, who may or may not have believed at the time that they were engaged in something morally wrong. You do not assign collective guilt because of the actions of a relative few people, especially when the collective guilt trying to be imposed by some is based on misplaced feelings and ignorance of historical reality.

Even taking Mr. Wilders writings at face value, he's talking about "plantations" in South County, not about Providence Plantations, which is a historical place including what is now Providence and some nearby cities and towns. Providence Plantations and Rhode Island (aka Aquidneck Island) were granted a patent by the English king back in the mid-1600s, as the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The name is simply a statement of fact about the merger of two places, and is not, nor should be construed as anything other than that.

Posted by: Will at July 14, 2009 6:36 PM

I would probably be open to a name change if in fact they could substitute the word "plantations" with something of similar meaning that carried less slavery implications...dropping all of Providence Plantations does anger me a little, as I champion our history. Roger Williams named the settlement under the premise of true freedom and tolerance, and outlawed slavery in the settlement in 1653. The State of Rhode Island AND THE PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS also had the first democratic constitution in nearly 2000 years...religious freedom, the voice of the people, freedom of speech, and the destruction of status voting were all things in which Roger Williams stood for and was exiled from Mass for...he named this settlemnet "Providence" because he beleived that all individuals had thier connections with God and that God would bestow "Providence" to his freedom filled settlement...taking out "Providence Plantations" from the state name is a mockery of Roger Williams...especially attaching the name to slavery, which is what Roger Williams settled Rhode Island for in the first place...I think more people should read about Rhode Island's history before trying to cover it up, and instead of connecting "The Providence Plantations" to slavery...try connecting it to the ORIGINAL truth in the name...like I said, I wouldn't be opposed to the name change if they used a similar word to replace "plantations" but they definitely need to back off Providence...

Posted by: ProvidencePlato at July 14, 2009 7:05 PM
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