State Rep. Anastasia Williams was the prime sponsor of the bill to put the name change ballot question before voters in 2020. Speaking with reporter Alex Nunes, she said its approval shows Rhode Islanders have come to recognize the way many people of color feel when they hear the words “Providence Plantations.” 

WILLIAMS: It's refreshing to know that they're getting it, and they are embracing it. And they understand it a lot more than they did before.

NUNES: They realize that those connotations are there that are undeniably hurtful to a lot of people.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. They see it. They understand it. Because when you say the word plantation, for many, it brings you to a dark place. You say plantation, I automatically see someone being lynched. I automatically see someone working in the field. I automatically see a Black man's back, torn with welts. I automatically see a child being ripped out of a mother's arms. I automatically see the darkness of those times. It brings me back. It brings us back. But now our allies have seen that, "Yes, it is real." And they have supported it.

NUNES: In 2010, a majority of voters rejected changing the state's name. What changed between then and now do you think?

WILLIAMS: Everybody became more compassionate, and they educated themselves to the actual facts of the situation, and they got it. They had the “aha moment.” And they see that it's actually something that's hurtful. They have put themselves for a split of a second, or longer, in our position, and thought about the hateful words that may have been thrown at them at one time or another.

NUNES: Back in 2010, when it didn't pass, did you think that someday the day would come that we would eventually drop those words from the state name?

WILLIAMS: You know, it's hard to say when you are up there as a lawmaker when things are going to happen. It's how persistent you are, how determined you are, and how informative you are. So, it's got to rain sometimes. So it's pouring [now]. It’s pouring in our state and in this world, due to the COVID [pandemic]. And also due to the murder of George Floyd. So we as a country, we as a state, we as the world, are at a crossroad in society. And it's up to us to determine that path. Either we stay where we are, or we cross over and change things for the better and do it together. 

NUNES: The push to change the state's name definitely gained momentum as a result of this year's Black Lives Matter protests. What should the state do next to keep the momentum going to promote racial justice?

WILLIAMS: They need to examine the other areas of injustices that have been plagued in this state and in the country. Focus on those things. We have a judicial system that needs to be reformed. We have a law enforcement system that needs to be reformed. We have an employment system that needs to be reformed. We have an educational system that needs to be reformed. The list is long, very long. And individuals that are in authority, in positions of authority and positions of power, need to realistically know that this is not about one sector of the state. It's about the state in its entirety. Whether you want diversity here or not, diversity is here to stay. And we have to embrace it and make whatever provisions necessary to make sure that we're all growing from it, benefiting from it, are part of it. Because at the end of the day, it is true. We are all one at the end of the day. We need to get along. We need to make the best of things, because this is what is supposed to be: the best of things for everybody, not just for a sector of people that have privileges. 

NUNES: So the work has just begun?

WILLIAMS: The work has just begun, and it certainly is in a good direction. And I feel good. And I'm proud of the people of the State of Rhode Island. I am very proud that they came out, stepped up and out to say, ”Yes, I'm going to do it. I am going to support that. I understand that now. I am a part of all of this. I want to be part of a new time in our lives that will promote justice, that promotes inclusiveness, that will promote fairness.” It's definitely a plus. We are definitely moving in the right direction.

NUNES: Representative Anastasia Williams, thanks so much for speaking with me.

WILLIAMS: Alex, thank you for the invitation of being able to share the thank yous to, not only yourself, but to the general public in the State of Rhode Island.

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.