October 18, 2021

Creating Dialogue on Weddings at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 6

“Should plantations or sites of enslavement host weddings and other celebratory events?” was the question posed during the Plantation Weddings Symposium hosted by the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Sites department and supported by the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund in December 2020. The symposium sought to bring together various stakeholders from the wedding industry—historians, representatives from wedding platforms, sales professionals, activists, and museum curators and staff—to generate meaningful conversations about this question.

As a wedding professional at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House attending the symposium, my question was a bit more nuanced: If plantations or sites of enslavement host weddings and other celebratory events, how do we proceed while being stewards of our sites and their histories? As I listened to the wide array of perspectives from historians, other plantation sites, and wedding professionals, a new communication approach started to take shape. By being more deliberate about how I placed the site into its appropriate historical context, couples who intended to celebrate at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House would be able to engage with its plantation history more fully.

By having a deeper understanding of the history, couples would be better able to conceptualize the full impact of their choice. They would also be able to celebrate with confidence knowing that our site is leaning into our current historic moment because we are striving with the greatest care to uplift the histories and stories of those that came before.

View of the facade from afar

photo by: Gordon Beall

Woodlawn was the first property in the National Trust for Historic Preservation portfolio of Historic Sites. As the site of a former working plantation, it is critical that the role of events and weddings are reconsidered as part of the National Trust's examination of its sites of enslavement.

Monumental Meaning through Context

It was during the symposium that I heard Karen Cox, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, share her research on the history of plantations and their glorification as part of the Old South. In response to a participant’s reference to a monument honoring the enslaved on their plantation site, Cox reminded us that “a monument without historical context does not teach anyone anything.” It was simple in its truth. If a monument, memorial, or, perhaps, a large mansion set on beautiful acres like Woodlawn is never adequately put into context, then it will never carry the full weight of the history, people, or ancestors that lived and struggled there.

I have always instinctively known that it’s important to discuss Woodlawn’s plantation history with couples. It is a part of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House’s complex history and story as a site, but it is also part of my personal and professional commitment to our couples. When people marry at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House, they are merging their story with our own, and they should know and learn the full scope of our past. So after hearing the many perspectives at the Plantation Weddings Symposium, I am determined to ensure that each couple is also afforded the space to reflect on the lives and experiences of the enslaved people.

Crafting Our Conversation

Shaping a sales pitch into a teachable moment is a challenge further complicated by Woodlawn’s checkered past. Built in 1805, Woodlawn was a working plantation where over 90 people were enslaved by Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis and Major Lawrence Lewis; however, records today include only the names of approximately 25 individuals. Their identities and information about their lives have been erased. Quakers purchased the land in 1846 and tried to establish a community for free Black people and immigrants before the Civil War. More than a century later, the National Trust moved Pope-Leighey House, a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home, to a section of the 127-acre estate to prevent its demolition.

In all my communication, I work to explain the full history of Woodlawn without minimizing the plantation experience, while also amplifying and uplifting the stories of the enslaved men and women. I scaffold our conversations to build trust so that couples open themselves up to hearing about Woodlawn’s origins as a plantation. I do not structure the conversation to diffuse the tension of addressing Woodlawn’s plantation history.

For example, I do not rush the conversation away from the plantation history into the more comfortable Quaker social experiment. Instead, I discuss our lack of documentation on that history, including the names of the many enslaved people who lived on the plantation at that time. I highlight the work that we’re doing now—hiring historians to perform more in-depth research—to find their names and build identities around their lives and experiences. In our center hall, I discuss the depth of artistry that the enslaved people must have possessed in order to build Woodlawn brick by brick, stone by stone. In this way, I hope I’m providing the space for couples to identify Woodlawn’s full historical association with slavery. It’s in this space where the enslaved breathe and exist.

To paraphrase Cox’s presentation, it is of the utmost importance that every couple or person know and feel the context of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House. While “plantation” may not be in the name anymore, our couples will know that we are striving to create a space where the lives of the enslaved are given due reverence, and their experiences will not be ignored or erased further. Yes, Woodlawn is a very beautiful place with greenery and seasonal blooms, and it is also a site of enslavement.

My deliberate communication about Woodlawn’s history of slavery and sharing information about our programming has led to some surprising moments. Some couples openly struggle. Some couples discuss their thoughts on plantation weddings with me in real time. There’s the occasional pregnant pause. Others have also nodded politely and changed the subject only to “ghost”—that is, cease communicating with—me later. Because I have always been a huge proponent of meeting people where they are, even if couples do not book a wedding, at the very least I have planted a seed in my role as a steward.

That seed may grow into a future conversation, another visit to explore Woodlawn or Pope-Leighey House in a different way, or a future moment of empathy. What I have observed in my short time is that most couples are grateful to have an open conversation in which we discuss Woodlawn’s plantation history, its present, and aspirations for the future. Recently, in fact, I have had a couple choose Woodlawn because they felt that we were handling the histories of the enslaved with care.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House is an amalgamation of many things: a plantation where enslaved people lived and labored, a Quaker experiment where free Blacks and immigrants lived, a Usonian house where Japanese influences are seen in wooden detail, a place where couples take their first steps out into their community together. There are so many layers that are still actively shaping Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House’s identity.

So if I return to the original question of “Should plantations or sites of enslavement host weddings and other celebratory events?,” there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. On the one hand, there are plantations that never acknowledge connections to the enslaved or do so in a way that is not meaningful or healing. On the other hand, there are places like Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House where I am trying to create a discussion couple by couple that includes an authentic representation of its history. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are committed to the journey of discovering, sharing, and honoring the lives and untold stories of the enslaved at Woodlawn.

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Kristelle Hicks is the Associate Manager of Special Events & Sales at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia.

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