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Should Charleston plantations, given their role in slavery, be used for weddings?

Using 'former forced labor camps' as venue 'inappropriate,' claims social justice group

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Plantations are among the most popular — and the most-photographed — wedding venues in Charleston. 

But questions about whether plantations, given their role in the country's painful history of enslavement, should function as wedding venues recently reached the national stage.

Letters distributed by the social justice organization Color of Change prompted wedding planning platforms like The Knot, Brides and Pinterest to announce restrictions and rollbacks on content from weddings held at plantations. 

At Charleston-area plantations, most agreed that the changes will be felt by the local wedding industry, though it’s too soon to tell how much. But the area's plantations differ on how they approach the wedding industry. One will host more than 100 weddings this year, and another will have just a handful. 

And the approaches to that larger question — if hosting weddings at plantations is at odds with acknowledging their history — can differ. 

Should plantations be used as venues for weddings and such celebrations?

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Wedding websites respond

In a letter to Pinterest, which Color of Change shared with The Post and Courier, the organization named Magnolia Plantation in Charleston as one of the places that uses the platform to promote itself as a wedding venue. 

“Because these plantations are the sites of former forced labor camps that brutalized and murdered millions of Black people in this country, framing them as wedding venue inspiration is inappropriate and disrespectful to their descendants and to their communities, many of whom use your website,” the letter to Pinterest reads.

The actual human toll of American slavery is not known, but the number of people enslaved in the U.S. at one time was about 4 million by 1860, according to Census counts. 

“If we were clear on what actually happened in these spaces, I don’t think people would be willing to get married in them,” said Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, senior campaign director for Color of Change.

Conversations around weddings at plantations have been happening for years in black communities and on social media, Ogunnaike said. For Color of Change, which has a mission of creating “a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America,” reaching out to wedding websites instead of the plantations was a strategic decision.

Middleton aerial garden.jpg

People walk through a garden at Middleton Place on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. Questions about whether plantations, given their role in the country's painful history of enslavement, should function as wedding venues recently reached the national stage. Lauren Petracca/Staff

While there are hundreds of plantations, couples all over the U.S. turn mainly to a handful of websites for wedding inspiration. 

“Folks are looking for spaces to have their weddings, and plantations are popping up,” Ogunnaike said.

After receiving Color of Change’s letter, the major wedding platform Zola announced it was removing all plantations from its venue listings.

In fact, all of the sites contacted by Color of Change have announced some form of policy changes related to content from weddings held at plantations. But that doesn’t mean that images of these venues have been wiped from the internet.

Searching for “plantation wedding” on Pinterest will still provide a lengthy stream of images of ceremonies set among rows of live oaks and couples posed in front of plantation houses. (A search for “Charleston wedding” on the same site yields similar results.)

Pinterest’s policies now include limiting autocomplete, search recommendations, email notifications and search engine optimization for plantation wedding content. The platform hasn’t accepted ads from these venues before, and that won’t be changing, a spokesperson said.

“Weddings should be a symbol of love and unity. Plantations represent none of those things,” Pinterest told The Post and Courier in a written statement.

Dotdash, the parent company of the website Brides, said in a statement that “glorifying plantations” is “not in line” with the company’s values. The site is working to “remove these references,” the statement said.

'We're going to all be hurt'

Helen Hill, the CEO of Explore Charleston, said she was surprised to see this response from wedding websites since, more recently, historic sites in the region have been criticized for the opposite: focusing more on slavery.

Some online reviews from disgruntled visitors to McLeod Plantation got national attention in the fall when The Washington Post featured them in an article. One reviewer had accused a tour guide of being “racist toward (them) as a white person.”

While some plantations may still be telling a whitewashed version of history, Hill said she feels Charleston’s plantations have “set a standard” for making painful histories visible, whether visitors are on a tour or at one of the sites for a special event.

“We have struggled through to tell the authentic story. We sincerely believe that telling the story is part of our responsibility to move reconciliation forward,” Hill said. “Our plantations have done that.”

In the South, there are few historic places that don’t have enslavement in their histories, said Tracey Todd, the president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation.

Though plantations, in particular, were witnesses to that violent history, Todd said he sees special events at Middleton Place as opportunities to bring more people to the site and show them that history.

“Most of the sites here in Charleston are ahead of the curve,” Todd said in reference to their interpretations of slavery. “But this group put us all into the same category, and we’re all going to be hurt if we’re not careful.”

For a plantation museum like Middleton, which is a nonprofit, the money that comes in from events like weddings, though not the main source of revenue, help fund research, preservation and educational programming, he said. 

“That money goes right back into the preservation of the site,” Todd said. “We need every penny of it and more.”

Charleston's plantations

In the Charleston area, plantation sites vary. There are privately owned sites that function as museums, like Magnolia Plantation, and plantation museums run by nonprofits, like Middleton Place. Others, like Lowndes Grove Plantation, function exclusively as event venues.

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Plantations are among the most expensive places to host a wedding in Charleston, though costs vary. During peak wedding season, event rentals at Lowndes Grove start at $4,500 for a weekday and climb to as much as $11,500 on Saturdays. For weekends, there is a food and beverage minimum on top of that ranging from $15,000 to $20,000.

Perhaps the most well-known Charleston-area plantation that hosts weddings is Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant. Actors Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds tied the knot there in 2012. Some criticized the couple for the choice, and that criticism resurfaced again last month when Color of Change raised the issue. 

Owner Willie McRae said he's "not ashamed of anything" done at Boone Hall and said he is "glad to welcome weddings with arms open."

Boone Hall visitors.jpg

Vitoria Dante and Zach Schmidt, of Colorado, visit Boone Hall Plantation on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Mount Pleasant. Questions about whether plantations, given their role in the country's painful history of enslavement, should function as wedding venues recently reached the national stage. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

If couples ask about the history of the property, there is information to provide, but McRae said he hasn't found that an interest in the plantation's history is the norm for couples looking to get married at Boone Hall.

"Most of the people aren't interested in the history," McRae said. "They're more interested in the beauty of the place."

Boone Hall hosts more than 100 weddings every year, McRae said. Middleton Place has less than half that, about 40 a year, Todd said. Magnolia Plantation declined to give a number.

McLeod Plantation, which is owned and operated by the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission, did not respond to requests for comment about its current and former policies about hosting weddings. 

Drayton Hall, which is less than a mile away from Magnolia off Ashley River Road, hasn’t hosted a wedding in nearly a decade. Large events posed too great of a physical risk to property, which they consider an active archaeological site, said Drayton president and CEO Carter Hudgins.

But, starting this year, the site will allow up to eight large private events like weddings.

"We’ve never, ever been full-on in the wedding business, and that will still be the case," Hudgins said. 

Drayton, like Middleton Place, is a nonprofit. The museum has been investing in its curatorial staff and its archaeological work, Hudgins said, but those investments come with a cost. And, like other Charleston-area historic sites, Drayton has seen attendance dip even as overall visitation to the Charleston area has climbed. 

Discussion about allowing events came up when they were looking for other ways to bring in funds, Hudgins said. 

Weddings will be allowed at one designated location on Drayton’s property. It’s out of the main line of view from the house and has been identified as a less sensitive area in terms of archaeology, Hudgins said.

drayton hall.jpg

Drayton Hall will allow just eight large events, including weddings, to be held on the property in 2020. A group tours the plantation house at Drayton Hall on Tuesday, January 7, 2020. Questions about whether plantations, given their role in the country's painful history of enslavement, should function as wedding venues recently reached the national stage. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Part of the fee for reserving Drayton for a wedding will include a year-long membership to the museum. Similarly, at Middleton Place, only people who have made a donation to the museum can host an event there. 

The questions prompted by Color of Change’s letters are ones that Drayton's staff and leadership have been grappling with "weekly, if not daily" since they decided to allow weddings again, said Sarah Stroud Clarke, the director of museum operations.

“If more people were coming and learning at historic sites such as ours and really investing in learning about the reality of slavery in the American South, then we wouldn’t be having these conversations,” Stroud Clarke said.

'Artifacts that miseducate'

Weddings held at plantations aren't a new phenomenon. McRae said he remembers weddings being held at Boone Hall when he was a child; Middleton has hosted weddings for about 30 years; Magnolia has offered them for slightly more than 20. But some have credited the same websites that recently took a step back on promoting plantation weddings with further popularizing an aesthetic that was promoted by Southern plantations.

Slave cabin visitors.jpg

JV Teague and Esther Munoz, visiting from Colorado, tour the slave houses at Boone Hall Plantation on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Mount Pleasant. Questions about whether plantations, given their role in the country's painful history of enslavement, should function as wedding venues recently reached the national stage. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Charleston’s booming destination wedding industry has also brought in couples from other parts of the country that may not be as familiar with the history of plantations as some locals.

Couples who want to get married at a plantation for the beauty but aren’t concerned about the history are likely “disconnected from the social problems that are the legacy of slavery," said Bernard Powers, a professor emeritus at the College of Charleston and the director of the college's Center for the Study of Slavery. 

“The plantation is all about race,” he said.

If the full history isn't understood and acknowledged at these weddings, Powers said, the photographs and stories from them become "artifacts that continue to miseducate people."

Ogunnaike of Color of Change said that, despite some sites’ intentions, she doesn't think plantations that double as wedding venues are respecting the lives of the people who were enslaved there. 

“We need to memorialize the atrocities of slavery in ways that other atrocities are memorialized,” Ogunnaike said.

Powers said he thinks it is possible for a wedding to be hosted at a plantation in a way that does respect the history, but that’s not necessarily happening now.

In her 2017 book "Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century," Tera Hunter, a scholar of African American history, wrote that when enslaved couples were married, traditional Christian wedding vows were altered. 

Instead of “til death do us part,” the couples would promise to be together “til death or distance” parted them, acknowledging the likelihood they could be separated against their will.

If, with a full understanding and acknowledgement of that history, a couple were to make that commitment and say those words in the same place where enslaved couples didn’t have the opportunity to do so, that “could be very powerful,” Powers said.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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