Despite Everything, People Still Have Weddings at ‘Plantation’ Sites

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Michael T. Luongo

Despite Everything, People Still Have Weddings at ‘Plantation’ Sites

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this spring spelled the end for many Confederate symbols. Monuments have been removed, by vote and by force.

But those symbols include the romanticized imagery of weddings on Southern “plantations,” a practice that carries on. These properties were forced work camps, where enslaved Africans and their descendants were tortured and killed.

Perhaps nowhere has benefited more from the idea of the romance of Southern weddings than Charleston, S.C., where the Civil War began, and which is now one of the top destination wedding locales in the United States, hosting nearly 6000 weddings in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the industry.

Winslow Hastie’s family has owned Magnolia Plantation & Gardens since the late 1670s. Mr. Hastie, who is white, is also the president and chief executive officer of Historic Charleston Foundation, which works to preserve structures, many built by enslaved people.

Magnolia “opened to the public in 1872,” Mr. Hastie said. “I think it was actually one of the first tourist attractions in the state of South Carolina. And that was out of economic necessity.”

Today, Mr. Hastie said, “the wedding side is part of the business for us.”

“It might seem like a lame response,” he said, “but the reality is the funds that are generated by the events do help to underwrite a lot of the other programing.”

Magnolia retains the quarters where enslaved people lived, he said, to provide a “powerful opportunity for us to talk about that aspect of our history.” Wedding groups, he added, can visit the cabins.

Credit…Gavin McIntyre for The New York Times

Joseph McGill Jr. is the site’s history and culture coordinator. Mr. McGill, who is Black, wrote in an email: “Every bride and groom are made aware of the complete history of the site.”

Mr. McGill also founded the Slave Dwelling Project, which has a mission to address the contributions of African-Americans, the legacy of slavery and to preserve the slave dwellings.

“Weddings on plantations is often discussed in the campfire conversations that we conduct,” Mr. McGill said. “There is no surprise that the demographic makeup of the participants often determine how most feel about the matter, most Blacks against, most whites for.”

“The most unfortunate thing that happens, I think, happens typically with white wedding parties,” said Bernard Powers, who is Black and the director of both the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and of the International African-American Museum, which is scheduled to open in Charleston in March 2022.

“They simply go out for the peaceful, kind of pristine, natural environment, the beauty, the romantic vistas of the Southern landscape,” he said, adding that this disconnection to how the sites were created in the first place is part of the South’s “schizophrenic approach” to history.

Dr. Powers said some African-Americans have wedding ceremonies in these places to bring a greater solemnity and commitment to the marriage rite. “Simply because,” he said, “if the people incorporate the knowledge of what happened at these places, then their marriage ceremony, and indeed their marriage, becomes an example of psychic and cultural repair.”

Credit…College of Charleston

That’s the idea that led Christi Ascue Kershaw, who is African-American, to choose Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens, perhaps Charleston’s most famous, for her 700-guest wedding in 2009.

Mrs. Ascue Kershaw is an owner of her family’s auto-body business. Her roots are within South Carolina’s African-American Gullah Geechee traditions. She said beyond the beauty of Boone Hall, a part of her wedding dream since high school, “we went there to honor those who built the plantation.”

Pearl Vanderhorst Ascue, Mrs. Ascue Kershaw’s mother, said friends and relatives definitely had questions: “‘Why are you going back to a plantation where our ancestors were held hostage, and working for free labor? They were enslaved. Why would you go back there for a huge wedding out there?’”

“I just told them we are back to the plantation — but it is for a different reason. Our ancestors, their spirit is still there for sure,” Mrs. Vanderhorst Ascue said. “I felt it, she felt it. The people even at the wedding felt it — it was just totally spiritual in a way that we honor our ancestors for what they did and the work they did at that plantation.”

Her daughter’s ceremony incorporated African-American traditions. Favors were of woven sea grass, a Gullah traditional craft. Mrs. Ascue Kershaw’s aunt, Charlotte Jenkins, a famed Gullah chef, chronicled the wedding in her 2010 cookbook, “Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea.”

Boone Hall, her wedding venue, still hosts weddings, but it is rethinking how it can add more context to its history. “The discussion of slavery is often difficult, but it is a part of history that should be discussed openly and honestly whenever plantation life is addressed,” Boone Hall management said in a statement. “We believe there is a responsibility and a commitment to present history in an accurate and educational manner each day.”

Boone Hall is also where the white actors Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds married in 2012. In an apology this summer in Fast Company magazine, Mr. Reynolds said: “What we saw at the time was a wedding venue on Pinterest. What we saw after was a place built upon devastating tragedy.”

The question of the use of these historical sites across the South is not settled.

Ashley Rogers, who is white and from North Carolina, is the executive director of the nonprofit Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La.

Credit…Elsa Hahn
Credit…Elsa Hahn

Weddings are not a part of that mission. “There is a moral and a right thing,” she said.

She said the common justification that weddings and other social events support educational programming is “fiction.”

“You have to dedicate whole teams to sales and coordinating the events and either you buy all of the equipment or you’re renting equipment. It’s a huge cost,” she said. “You really have to pour a lot of resources into just running your events and wedding business.”

At Whitney, she said coordinating wedding events on site would redirect “all of my energy or a significant portion of my energy into doing a thing that is counter to my mission.”

“We have to grind against this really entrenched idea of white supremacy, of the glory of the Old South,” she said. “Having a wedding in 2019 or 2020 in front of these gorgeous colonnades on a plantation, all it does is reinforce the idea that what a plantation is: a beautiful home — when it’s not. It’s a labor camp.”

Credit…Middle Place Foundation

Middleton Place, in Dorchester County, S.C., was once owned by Arthur Middleton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Its grounds include a rebuilt cabin for enslaved people that is open during weddings.

“You never know,” said Tracey Todd, the president and chief executive of Middleton Place Foundation, who is white, “when a transformational moment may occur in someone.”

Krisy Parker Thomas, a planner in Nashville who owns Southern Sparkle Weddings, has planned very few weddings at these sites. However, she had a visceral reaction at one popular site in her region after touring it as a possible venue for her clients, who she said in general are Black and white, Northern and Southern people.

“They obviously had the beautiful mansion, but they also had the slave cabins on site, because it was also a historical museum,” said Mrs. Thomas, who is Black. “So, seeing this beautiful house, and it is clearly still standing, and the fact that slaves built it, and then seeing what they go to live in, kind of got me super emotional.”

Credit…Megan Shaw

Gail Johnson, a wedding planner in Tucker, Ga., who is Black, echoed the sentiment. There is “an unspoken type of code, that Black people don’t do weddings at plantations,” she said.

“The pain and all of that comes back when you talk about a plantation,” she said. “It’s kind of like opening a wound.”

Tanis Jackson, a former wedding planner who now has a service in Charleston that does lighting for weddings and other events, and who is a white Canadian married to a Black man, said the sites are “definitely a big part of why people want to have their destination weddings here.”

“In my experience, most of the people when they say, ‘Oh, we love the history,’ I’m like — all of it? Because, you know, you are looking at the ‘Gone With the Wind’ version.”

She has found that race is usually a factor in who chooses plantations. “When I moved here, nobody talked about it in the wedding industry,” she said. “I’d had a few brides who are African-Americans who brought it up.”

They were “really quiet and shy about it, because they’re like, ‘I don’t want to go to a plantation,’” she said.

It mattered in her own wedding as well. “My mother-in-law survived the ’60s as a Black woman,” she said. “I’m not going to ask her to go to a plantation.”

But she said she understood an economic reality of the region. “If you’re in Charleston and you want to keep your business alive, it’s not really an option,” she said, of excluding those sites for wedding planning. “Half of the venues are plantations.”

Explore Charleston, a convention and visitors bureau, released a statement in June defending these sites as places for weddings that noted the same. “Virtually every historic site in the South has some tie to enslavement,” it read.

Aneesa Glines, a North Carolina wedding planner who is Black and Puerto Rican, owns Harmony Weddings and Events. She and Elana Walker of Southern Noir Weddings started a conversation about diversity for venues and planners called Bridging the Gap. About 500 were on their June webinar, which they said was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mrs. Glines said that even as a plantation wedding causes “a lot of emotion and disgust and discomfort with many people, Black and white, in the South,” it’s difficult to find a public venue with enough space for a wedding and “tons of beautiful land that does not have any history that ties back to slavery.”

Some local wedding sites have recently dropped the word “plantation” from their names, she noted. “I think that is a good step,” she said, “but there is more to be done than simply changing the name.”

Credit…FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives, via Getty Images

Amy E. Potter, a researcher at Georgia Southern University, was a lead investigator on a three-year National Science Foundation study that focused on the transformation of “Southern commemorative landscapes.” She and researchers from other universities found, after surveying 1,785 visitors to 16 plantations, that the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind” continued to keep the perceptions of plantations in a positive light.

“Gardens and particularly the architecture of the ‘Big House’ play a significant role in creating the desirable plantation wedding setting,” she said. The environment, she added, contributes to a “deliberate forgetting of the brutality of slavery and the history of these sites.”

Dr. Potter said that one location in the study, the McLeod Plantation Historic Site, which is managed by Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission, “thoughtfully reflected on the tension they feel hosting weddings.”

McLeod decided to stop having weddings there in 2019, according to Shawn Halifax, the cultural history interpretation coordinator with the commission.

Mr. Halifax, who is white, said deeper conversation was spurred in 2015, when the white supremacist Dylann S. Roof murdered nine African-Americans at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Mr. Roof had visited McLeod and other plantations as inspiration, Mr. Halifax said. “He is someone who has been educated and believes in the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative that has done so much to romanticize the history of plantations and makes it so that this is a desirable place to have weddings,” he said.

In early 2019, McLeod became a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a group working to connect the past with current human rights issues. Mr. Halifax said the membership application process helped the commission “begin to really just understand a bit more what the site really is — a private for-profit, agricultural venture that used slave labor.”

“We’re largely a white organization,” he said, “so there’s an internal education process that has to happen not just for individuals, but also for organizations and institutions.”

Credit…Hunter McRae for The New York Times

For Dr. Powers, of the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, bringing people of various backgrounds to such sites for education, including through weddings, offers “a valuable perspective.”

“If we cut ourselves off from these things,” he said, “particularly if African-Americans themselves cut themselves off, then I think you are really saying that there’s no chance of repair and social repair because they are beyond redemption, and the people who are associated with them, and probably their descendants, are beyond repair, and I don’t buy that argument.”

A “repair” may come with a cost. Mrs. Thomas, the planner in Nashville, recalled going to her car after touring a site for clients. “I just started bawling,” she said.

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