In December, several high-profile wedding businesses — including ubiquitous wedding website host The Knot — pledged to stop promoting weddings at slave plantations. This ongoing discussion, as well as the critique of these institutions for ignoring or romanticizing slave life, is important. But what is not being discussed, likely because it is not well known, is the historical context within which these present-day practices emerged.
The process of sanitizing the image of former slave plantations began early in the 20th century in areas of the South where plantation agriculture was no longer viable. As these plantations were converted into museums, narratives of the white planter class dominated depictions of plantation life. This whitewashing of history rendered black Americans insignificant to America’s heritage — a process that continues today.
The process of sanitizing the image of former slave plantations began early in the 20th century in areas of the South where plantation agriculture was no longer viable.
The plantations around Charleston, South Carolina, where I was raised, are today a major destination for plantation weddings. Wallethub ranked Charleston 26th on its list of best U.S. cities to get married in 2019. As the region's tourist profile has grown, South Carolina plantations were transformed from agricultural enterprises into sporting estates and tourist attractions. And the legacy of slave labor was whitewashed, downplayed or simply erased.
The transformation began several decades ago, and it was undertaken by both southern and northern whites. Between 1900 and 1940, wealthy northerners purchased former plantation lands and established winter retreats for recreational activities, primarily hunting. Historian Daniel Vivian, author of “A New Plantation World: Sporting Estates in South Carolina Lowcountry, 1900-1940, ”found that by 1930, 76 sporting plantations were located in the region. He argues these new plantations reestablished social hierarchies of white elites as landowners and landless blacks as laborers, affirmed the myth of a romantic plantation past and encouraged Americans to conceive of plantations as national treasures.
Other 20th-century plantation owners restored and opened their homes and gardens to the visiting public to take advantage of the burgeoning tourism in Charleston and Savannah. Middleton Place, about 15 miles northwest of Charleston, was one of the earliest former plantations to open its gardens to the public in the 1920s. Both sporting plantations and the early plantation museums emphasized the lives of the plantation owners while the black laborers who built, repaired, and maintained these properties during and after slavery became increasingly invisible.
As a child growing up in Charleston, I saw the television ads for these beautiful gardens, and I wanted to see for myself. But my father explained to me that black people were not permitted to visit many of them — they were for whites only. The conversation was a pre-Civil Rights era version of “the talk” many African-American parents have with their children about racism and discrimination in the U.S.
In the Jim Crow era, parents told their children where they could not go and what they could not do. I did not realize that these gardens were on former slave plantations until I studied slavery as an undergraduate, and I first visited a plantation museum a few months before I entered graduate school. By then, they had been desegregated. But little did I know that my childhood curiosity about the local plantation gardens would blossom into a career devoted to researching and writing about slavery and plantations.
For many African Americans of my generation, born and raised in the waning years of the Jim Crow South, plantation museums not only invoke the horrors of slavery, but also, the legalized segregation that denied black descendants access to the places where their ancestors lived and suffered. Most plantation museums are unwilling to confront the complex histories of plantations, or to acknowledge the painful pasts plantations represent to many people.
Most plantation museums are unwilling to confront the complex histories of plantations, or to acknowledge the painful pasts plantations represent to many people.
Given the prominent role of plantations in shaping slavery and race relations in the U.S., I believe it is inappropriate for any slave plantations to host weddings. But particularly troubling in my mind are the plantation museums that claim to present slavery honestly at their sites and to work closely with African-American descendants of slave communities. One simply cannot actively market plantations as wedding venues while claiming to respect the horrors of history. Inviting wedding events glamorizes the plantation past and is counterproductive to their engagement with slavery.
I understand why people are attracted to the beauty of plantations, just as I marveled at the gardens I saw on TV as a child. But the experience of visiting plantations often surprises couples, even ones who were not troubled by the history of their venue beforehand. One bride interviewed by Buzzfeed said she got a pain in her stomach every time she and her fiancée passed by the slave quarters; others refused to take wedding photographs near the slave quarters, and thought to do so would be disrespectful. Looking at a picture of a plantation and actually standing steps from where slaves were lived and slept are two different things.
It is not my intention to make couples feel guilty about where they were married. My goal is to call attention to an issue and inspire plantation museums to revisit their missions. Are they primarily concerned with educating visitors on plantation history, life and culture — or are they primarily venues for special events? If the latter, what kinds of events are most appropriate for their organization, and which are inappropriate?
Plantation museums have had a long history in the U.S., beginning with the acquisition of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home in 1860, by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Today, there are around 375 plantations open to the public according to RESET (Race, Ethnicity, and Social Equality in Tourism) a multi-university initiative conducting studies of plantation museums. Forty years ago, the vast majority of these museums contained little, if any, information on slavery. Since that time, most have incorporated some information on slavery; but even some of these presentations still depict plantations as idyllic places.
Plantations are important vestiges of southern history and culture where the foundation for U. S. race relations was initially laid. When plantation museums ignore or misrepresent slavery, they undermine the heritage of African Americans. By doing, so these museums help to maintain strained race relations and the social inequalities between blacks and whites. It is time for plantation museums to critically evaluate how their spaces may use romantic love to romanticize one of America's worst chapters.