Plantation weddings face new scrutiny: 'We don’t want the spaces where enslaved Black people are buried to be sites of celebration'

Plantation wedding
Plantation weddings are facing new scrutiny in the wake of protests calling for racial equality. (Photo: Getty Creative)

In the weeks since protesters against racial injustice first took to the streets, Confederate statues have come toppling down, companies are distancing themselves from branding that is steeped in racist stereotypes, groups like the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum have announced name changes, and Gone with the Wind has been temporarily yanked from the HBO Max streaming service, then reinstated with a disclaimer warning viewers that the Civil War epic “denies the horrors of slavery.” It stands to reason, then, that the plantation wedding trend will continue to fall out of favor as the U.S. cultural climate recalibrates and reexamines problematic traditions.

In December, bridal sites and publications including Pinterest and the Knot agreed to adopt new guidelines regarding wedding venues which operated as slave plantations, acting on a campaign started by the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. The campaign noted that the “decision to glorify plantations as nostalgic sites of celebration is not an empowering one for the Black women and justice-minded people who use your site.” Since then, the Knot has stopped using language romanticizing plantation weddings, while Brides, Zola and Martha Stewart Weddings have removed plantation wedding content altogether, Color of Change’s deputy senior campaigns director Jade Magnus Ogunnaike tells Yahoo Life.

Ogunnaike sees that campaign’s success as just the first step. in what she hopes will be an end to plantation weddings, in which couples exchange vows against the scenic backdrop of a historical Southern mansion where enslaved Black people once toiled.

“We don’t want the spaces where enslaved Black people are buried to be sites of celebration,” she says. “Plantations are not spaces where torture and rape happened to happen to enslaved Black people; they’re spaces that were created to torture and sexually assault enslaved Black people.”

Ogunnaike thinks the current “moment of cultural reckoning” spurred by the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans will draw more scrutiny of the ways in which the legacy of slavery persists today, including the continued popularity of plantation weddings.

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on wedding season this summer, given bans on large gatherings and restrictions on various venues, including former plantations. But while the industry has been hit hard over the last several months, some wedding planners are putting their moral compass before monetary gain by refusing to work with venues that once operated as plantations.

On May 31, Nashville-based wedding planner Lauren Schaefer of the Get Together Events shared an Instagram post announcing that she would no longer “coordinate weddings at plantations or other venues that represent the racial injustice that has plagued our country since its inception.”

Schaefer also vowed to ⁣”create environments for celebration that make all guests and vendors feel safe no matter their identity.”

Schaefer says she was moved to be “more of an active ally” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, noting that while she had already personally opted out of plantation weddings, she had never publicly acknowledged that as a policy.

“It was limiting my inclusivity,” she tells Yahoo Life of not publicly taking a stand sooner. “I really want anyone to be able to look at my website know that I could be their wedding coordinator. I just felt like, by not letting people know that I’m not going to do plantation weddings — because it’s not a place that makes everyone feel comfortable or safe, or like a place for celebration — I was doing a disservice.”

While Schaefer acknowledges that former plantations are certainly not the only venues in which racial injustice occurred, the glorification and profiting off of a tragic history rankles; what’s more, celebrations held there create “an unhappy and unfair situation” for wedding guests and vendors of color.

Related: Debate stirs about Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively's plantation wedding

She has seen this firsthand, having worked on two plantation weddings when her business, which was founded in New York City, started serving the Nashville community two years ago. Schaefer now sees that work as a lapse in judgment and doesn’t promote the weddings in question, but is careful to avoid judging any couple who may have been married at such a venue.

“I don’t want them to feel like their day has been tainted,” she says, noting that a lack of historical perspective coupled with factors like venue cost are more likely to have prompted bookings rather than outright malice. “But also, we need to recognize the error in our ways.”

Allison Davis, founder and principal producer of the luxury wedding and event planning company Davis Row, agrees that there is a lot of debate among her clients in the South about the appropriateness of plantation weddings. But Davis, who spoke out against the trend and the prospect of wedding guests standing on “unmarked graves at the cocktail hour” in a 2018 blog, is encouraged that the current conversations about systemic racism will make things crystal clear.

“The more people that understand why it’s offensive, the better off our industry will be,” she says of plantation weddings.

“Plantations should not be marketed as ‘beautiful,’ ‘luxurious,’ ‘a better time,’ ‘romantic’ — all of these kind of positive descriptors that they tend to have,” adds Davis, whose business serves New York, Charlotte, N.C., Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. “They shouldn’t be evoking any luxury for a wedding because that’s not what they stand for for so many people.”

Some wedding industry professionals are distancing themselves from plantation weddings
Some wedding industry professionals are distancing themselves from plantation weddings. (Getty Creative)

Davis, who is a Black woman, says that she would consider an invitation to such a wedding “uncomfortable” and “insensitive.” She tells Yahoo Life she has never been approached to plan a plantation wedding, noting, “I think there’s a reason for that.” She’d like to see others in the industry, from planners and photographers to florists and publications, take a stand and cease portraying the antebellum lifestyle as “aspirational.”

“As long as wedding pros continue to promote these kinds of places, it’s going to continue to be a conversation,” Davis says.

Is there a way forward for venues with plantation pasts, some of which have rebranded themselves as “historical homes”?

“I don’t feel like all plantations in the country should be wiped off the map,” Davis says. “I don’t feel that way at all. I just don’t think that they should be used for a celebration.”

She points to Whitney Plantation, in Edgard, La., which doesn’t shy from its gruesome past and instead now serves as a museum examining the lives of enslaved people. In a recent Instagram post, the nonprofit explained why it will never host weddings there: “We do not glamorize the Big House or the grounds,” it reads.

“Plantations are sites of immense cruelty and violence,” the statement continues. “We do not allow any event that would overshadow this reality and disrespect the memory of all those who suffered, labored and died here.”

Ogunnaike says other plantations should follow suit by functioning as educational centers that lay bare the true historical narrative of slavery — but they need the resources to do so.

“There’s not public funding to maintain plantations as spaces of historical atrocity and monuments to that historical atrocity,” she notes. “It’s going to involve cities funding the preservation of these places as a history lesson and not as a site of celebration.”

Beyond plantation weddings, there is change afoot in the industry. As Yahoo Life has previously reported, Texas-based wedding planner Jordan Maney’s petition urging that wedding media outlets offer better representation of Black couples is getting traction; Maney is also calling for those outlets to commit to antiracism pledges. Schaefer adds that she and fellow industry colleagues are taking a hard look at the lists of preferred wedding vendors they recommend to couples, to ensure that Black-owned businesses are well represented.

But the professionals who spoke to Yahoo Life say the industry can’t move forward until it stops glorifying its problematic past.

“We have an entire culture and economic system that benefits from romanticizing slavery, romanticizing the antebellum period, which was not only a time of ball gowns and chivalry; it was a time when those ball gowns and chivalry were enabled by the free and exploited labor of enslaved Black people,” Ogunnaike says.

Notes Schaefer, “That’s not the place where you want to start the love journey of your future.”

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