Why Are People Still Having Weddings at Plantations Slaves Built?

Posted by Amanda Hess

Plantation
Your wedding day is supposed to be the happiest day of your life. So what if your happiness depends on exploiting the historical persecution of black people? Last year, a white British couple staged an elaborate "colonial Africa"-themed destination ceremony in South Africa, complete with black servants in fez hats and glorious laughter. The couple's been condemned for holding the affair. But stateside, hundreds of marriages are cinched every year on the soil of America's own historical horrors. Welcome to the plantation wedding. 

Just yesterday, a PR flack shot me an e-mail detailing the "eight alternative wedding trends" that are hot this summer. Among them: "The Rustic South." "Many couples are going for the nostalgic feel of the old South," she told me, reflecting a "growing hunger in popular culture for all things Southern"—and for authentic backdrops built by the fruits of slave labor. "I've definitely been seeing more plantation weddings," she said when prompted.

And the field-adjacent manse isn't strictly for classic Southern belles anymore. Plantations are also acceptable wedding destinations for hip graphic designers and comic book illustrators and readers of irony-laden blogs. One Jezebel commenter chimed in to lend her support of the trend: "[I]t's not offensive to have a wedding on a plantation," she wrote. "They are often beautiful places, and although they may have a terrible history, now people of any race can enjoy them as venues."

Say what you will about the legacy of slavery, at least it produced some fabulous venues. Like this one, an immaculate Louisiana estate that once enslaved 500 humans. The venue's website is littered with details you can't make up: The plantation is still equipped with the quaint antique bells the children of the house rang to summon their slave servants. It still equates enslaved human beings with "the family's most prized furniture and china." It still calls itself the "White Castle." And it still attributes its impressive grounds to its original slaveholding owner and the "business savvy that fostered his tremendous wealth," as opposed to, say, human bondage.

That plantation did not return a request for comment. But in poking around in the annals of wedding blogs, I discovered brides who've conjured plenty of justifications for holding a wedding at places like it. Including:

It's all in the past. "I personally wouldn’t do [it], but slavery was so long ago you might not have a [problem] with it," one commentator wrote to a bride weighing a plantation wedding after her search for Virginia venues came up with a lot of former slaveholding mansions. In fact, history is a huge selling point for plantation venues. "From two American Presidents to socialites at soirées, Historic Carnton Plantation has been a gathering place for ladies and gentlemen over the last two centuries," one Tennessee venue informs couples. Another plantation in the state includes plenty of historical information about the many people who were enslaved there, and how their lives weren't that bad. It refers to the plantation's slaveowner as "relatively benevolent"—as if everything's relative when it comes to owning humans—and reports that some slaves "actually lived in the mansion," where they "slept at the foot of the bed of their master or mistress."

We're reclaiming the plantation. "This is in no way a defense or negation of the atrocity that is America's legacy of slavery, or an attempt to divorce the history of a space from its current uses," one wedding commentator wrote of plantation weddings. "[B]ut I wonder if for some people, shifting the way a space is used is potentially a form of reclamation." White people are indeed attempting to "reclaim" plantations from all of the icky reminders of the black slaves who not only built their physical structures, but also fueled the white wealth, power, and land ownership that continues to contribute to racial disparities to this day.

Plantations are pretty. They sure are. And what a deal on the construction! Some plantation wedding planners may be able to successfully dissociate a history of slavery from those gorgeous verandas. But for others, even obvious artifacts of human slavery—like slave quarters—add to the charm. "The 30 acres of grounds are impeccable and the atmosphere is friendly," one wedding blogger wrote of a Nashville plantation. "They have a truly gorgeous carriage house to complement the fantastic mansion. The original slave house is also present on the property, as well as several other outbuildings and a new addition—a winery." It might be gauche to perform your wedding vows in front of a building where humans were kept captive after being sold to the highest bidder. Then again, that all depends on your color scheme.

You can work around the racism. "I'd skip the Confederate flags simply from a sensitivity standpoint since it is a polarizing (albeit historical) symbol," one commenter advised a woman on her plantation wedding decor. "As for your original question, mint juleps may make a cute 'signature' drink," she continued. But eliminating explicitly racist details from your wedding doesn't make the venue any less racist. It's on a plantation.

Photo (cc) via flickr user LAYeiser