October 18, 2021

Getting Married in the Wake of Slavery

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 1

“I include the personal here ... to mourn and to illustrate the ways our individual lives are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”

Christina Sharpe, author of "In the Wake: On Blackness and Being"

My wedding day was by far the most unadulterated joy- and love-filled day of my life. Surrounded by loving witnesses, we declared our vows and were blessed by a dear friend. Drums pounded, Nina Simone sang “Come Ye,” and my parents called our ancestors to witness as my partner and I jumped a handmade broom.

There, at the center of a 1990s Art Deco Revival-style building, we caught prosperity chestnuts tossed by my in-laws, sipped from Korean teacups, and danced to a medley of bachata, ‘60s soul, ‘90s R&B, and classic Black line dance music. We ate delicious New England seafood and shed joyful tears into white linen napkins. Our bridal party photos were snapped on a bridge built by Pero Paget, the enslaved builder of several of Providence, Rhode Island’s oldest buildings, and in a gallery at an art school that was financed by the stolen labor of generations of Southern enslaved cotton workers. We were surrounded by history, interwoven cultures, and memory, and we would not have changed a thing.

For a few hours, we lived a fantasy, and our loved ones enjoyed a free flow of delectable food, drinks, and music. Our heritage was all around us. We invited history to the party and provided it with a seat of honor. We tried on old traditions and created something wholly brand new.

I chose not to get married at a plantation even though there were plenty of options available in the state of Rhode Island. Yes, Rhode Island. The problem was not the history of slavery. The problem was the present. I was hoping to get married at a historic site, preferably a place that was at least older than me. I liked the idea of finding a property with a history as vintage as my family’s Colonial or even Mayflower roots in this country. But I needed a place I could be proud of—a place that would welcome me, my now husband, and our multiracial families and make us feel welcomed.

We recognized that, as tourism scholar Stefanie Benjamin, et al., put it, “American heritage tourism and preservation has long been defined by racial and class politics that define what and who is worthy of commemoration, traditionally sending a message that nonwhites matter less or in some cases do not belong at all (Kline, Alderman, Hoggard).” We didn’t want to be gawked at, questioned, or harassed. When we requested the presence of history at our wedding, we invited the full story.

A man and a woman in wedding finery standing on a bridge with a brick building behind them.

photo by: Elon Cook Lee

The author and her partner on their wedding day on a bridge designed by Pero Paget.

Doing the Work

Interpreting slavery and our nation’s racial and gender histories through frameworks of repair is my work. I have labored for over a decade as a history interpreter and living historian, a workshop developer, trainer, educator, and curator. Much of my previous work has included workshops for curators on interpreting racist objects, or for tour guides on facilitating dialogues with visitors on race and gender violence.

I developed discussion guides for church groups on lynching and race in America and an exhibit for high school students on slavery, gender violence, and 19th-century womanist demands for agency. I often worked with educators and parents on how to relate some of our nation’s toughest narratives to children and young adults in ways that are age appropriate, educational, engaging, empowering, and relevant to their lives.

As a former historic site director, I understand the balance that historic sites must make among the sometimes-conflicting demands of, and for, major donors and board members, engaged repeat visitors, increased site revenue, critical educational opportunities, positive social media engagement, continuous research, and a healthy work culture for staff.

And I am also a descendant of enslaved Africans (and a few Irish and British enslavers), where multiple generations, including my parents, fought for dignity despite the oppression of racial segregation.

My family tree has lost loved ones to lynching, mass incarceration, police violence, and war. We have lost precious and hard-won acres of land and beloved homes to eminent domain, urban renewal, discriminatory mortgage practices, and the whims of courthouse clerks, preservationists, and city planning campaigns that did not see our rights as landowners, the true value of our properties, or the richness they contained. I am a public history professional, a deeply rooted descendant, and a mama, and that combination guides my work at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And I am also a descendant of enslaved Africans (and a few Irish and British enslavers), where multiple generations, including my parents, fought for dignity despite the oppression of racial segregation.

A New Wave of Change

In late 2019, Color of Change, the country’s largest online racial justice organization, raised important issues regarding the practice of hosting weddings at historic slave plantation sites, aka “plantation weddings.” They demanded that wedding organizing websites like Pinterest, Wedding Wire, The Knot, Zola, and Martha Stewart Weddings change their advertising and promotion policies to stop this practice.

By the first week of December 2019, Pinterest and The Knot Worldwide issued statements indicating that they had and would continue to respond to CoC by ceasing the promotion of plantation weddings, plantation venues, and the romanticization of plantation history in ways that sanitize any trace of the brutality that occurred. Zola then removed all plantations and plantation-themed products from their platform.

“Plantations are not just beautiful or charming places,” Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, senior campaign director of Color of Change, asserted. “They are places that were intentionally created to force Black people to work, [to] torture them and sexually abuse them.”

photo by: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

An image of a South Carolina plantation exemplifies the way in which these places are often viewed as beautiful, romantic, nostalgic places, rather than sites of violence and trauma for enslaved people by white enslavers.

That was a shattering statement for many people to read, especially those who have dedicated their lives and careers to the preservation and interpretation of antebellum historic sites. As the press picked up the story, headlines from the nation’s biggest news outlets depicted a shift in how people in the United States felt about the sight of tall white columns, oak-lined allées, and Palladian architecture.

At the same time, statisticians had been noting for a decade that Millennials and Generation-Z are more passionate about social change and collective activism in support of historically oppressed identity groups than previous generations. And they are quick to stop supporting institutions and organizations that no longer match their values. The wedding industry was listening and acting, but change was slower at historic sites and for-profit historic venues.

Demands for change continued that winter as an Alabama-based group argued that Christmas and other holiday celebrations at plantations “represent a willful ignorance of the experience of enslaved people and a concocted memory of a joyous, white supremacist Christmas celebration.” Concern spread that plantation museums had been hosting a variety of holidays, commemorative dates, and other ephemeral annual events that ignored or even trivialized the realities of life at sites of enslavement. Yes, this includes the popularity of ghost tours and Halloween events that make light of stories of torture and violence inflicted on enslaved people. And these well-founded concerns were backed up by decades of scholarship from historians, geographers, and tourism scholars.

Initial National Trust Response: Plantation Weddings Symposium

In the fall of 2019—just prior to the launch of Color of Change’s Plantation Weddings campaign—I was hired as the director of interpretation and education for the National Trust's portfolio of 28 historic sites. It had become clear to leaders at the National Trust that a new vision for public interpretation at the organization's historic sites was needed, and lucky for me they were looking for my combination of skills and expertise. The Color of Change challenge served as a much-needed stimulus to push forward with the necessary work of researching and interpreting the racial and gendered histories at each site, improving training, expanding the language and storytelling styles we deploy, and experimenting with new public programs and exhibits.

In December 2020, we directly tackled Color of Change’s challenge by organizing the Plantation Weddings Symposium. This convening was a collaboration between the Historic Sites Department at the National Trust and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF) and brought staff from our sites with histories of enslavement, wedding industry leaders, and racial justice organizers together with historians, tourism scholars, descendants of slavery, and public historians to work collectively to come up with new strategies, solutions, and questions on how to ethically steward sites of enslavement.

We realized rather quickly that the controversy that brought us together was only superficially about weddings. As Toni Morrison wrote in her novel Beloved, “Not a house in the country that ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” Where can we find a stretch of soil or a sweeping landscape on this continent that was not stolen or bought with bloodshed? When we begin telling the true story about the past, we find that all types of places bore witness to violence and discrimination.

So maybe the problem with plantation weddings is not actually the weddings, or even the plantations. The problem is the stories we tell, or do not tell.

This applies to sites in the Northern and Western states, too. When you add to the list the homes and workplaces where gender violence occurred, the houses of worship where LGBTQ folks were barred or children molested, the public parks and woodlands that hosted lynchings, sites of violence against Indigenous people, and you begin to realize that Morrison was right and no place is truly clean.

So maybe the problem with plantation weddings is not actually the weddings, or even the plantations. The problem is the stories we tell, or do not tell. The problem is that some people are proud to celebrate one of the happiest moments of their lives at a site that is ashamed of its history. The problem is that for too long it has been acceptable in this country to profit from half-truths and monetize fantasies that have been passed off as history. The problem is that people today are still making money off of the work of enslaved people, and they are doing it without acknowledging that truth.

In our next installment, we will dive into the historical context that brought us to this moment and explore in more detail the National Trust Historic Sites’ histories of slavery.

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Stefanie Benjamin et al., "Heritage Site Visitation and Attitudes toward African American Heritage Preservation: An Investigation of North Carolina Residents." Journal of Travel Research 55, no. 7 (2016): 919–33, https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287515605931.

Further reading on this topic can be found in the Plantation Weddings Syllabus developed by Elon Cook Lee, Lizzie Mekonnen, and Kristelle Hicks following the December 2020 Plantation Weddings Symposium.

Elon Cook Lee is the director of interpretation and education in the Historic Sites Department at National Trust for Historic Preservation.  

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