October 18, 2021

Presenting the Full Story on Digital Platforms

Reconsidering Celebrations at Sites of Enslavement, Part 5

As discussed in previous stories in this series, in December 2020, the National Trust for Historic Preservation held the Plantation Weddings Symposium, drawing over 130 people and initiating critical discussions on the issue of plantation weddings. The issues surrounding plantation weddings gained national media attention when in late 2019, Color of Change, the country’s largest online racial justice organization, sent letters to wedding industry leaders demanding that they stop marketing plantations as beautiful sites with romantic histories where couples can have their weddings.

In addition to extensive press coverage, the campaign led to leading wedding organizing platforms creating new policies that would make it more difficult to find information on “plantation weddings.” The Plantation Weddings Symposium engaged a variety of stakeholders including wedding and event vendors, social justice organizers, historic sites staff, and scholars in facilitated conversations meant to consider if and how to best move forward with hosting weddings and other celebratory events.

Inside the slave quarters on the second floor of the adjoining service wing with chairs, table, and brick fireplace.

photo by: Alex Green

The slave quarters at Decatur House are one of the few remaining examples of urban slave quarters. When in use, 15 to 21 enslaved people owned by John Gadsby lived in this space just steps away from the White House.

As Elon Cook Lee, director of education and interpretation for the National Trust's historic sites, described in her articles, the National Trust’s Sites of Enslavement Working Group is now revising how each of the organization's historic sites represent themselves on popular wedding industry platforms. This revision is an effort to authentically represent the histories of the National Trust’s sites on these platforms.

My fellowship at the National Trust for Historic Preservation focused on co-planning and running the Plantation Weddings Symposium, participating in the Sites of Enslavement Working Group, and conducting research and making recommendations on the digital presence of historic sites on wedding platforms and to provide models for how how other historic sites can approach this important work.

Auditing National Trust Historic Sites’ Online Wedding Presence

After conducting a survey on the representation of the National Trust’s sites of enslavement on American websites like Zola, Wedding Wire, and The Knot, I found that the descriptions did not provide any substantial information about the sites and their history and consisted largely of generic descriptors that focused primarily on the setting, architecture, and landscape. There was truly little on the people and stories of these significant places—something which is critical for couples to understand when getting married at a historic site.

Many of the descriptions were lacking any identifying information about the site’s history. For example, one historic site is described purely as a “historic mansion” and a “charming inn,” with no other descriptors beyond its setting and landscape. Some historic sites mention the property owner but go little beyond that to describe the values and meanings attached to these places.

Principally, there was no mention of how the institution of slavery supported the wealth and prosperity of these properties’ landowners and families. Weaving the role of slavery into these descriptions is imperative to accurately and authentically representing these historic sites and cannot be erased when marketing these sites as wedding venues.

Examining how the National Trust’s sites of enslavement are marketed and described on wedding industry platforms revealed the need for an inclusive and holistic representation that moves beyond simplistic and generic descriptions. This move requires a commitment to incorporating how slavery supported the historic site’s property owner’s wealth.

Since this audit occurred:

In 2014 collage artist and professor Lynda Frese developed "In the Big House" as part of an artist residency at Shadows-on-the Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. This collaboration between art and history is one example of current efforts to tell the full American story, and should be shared as part of marketing practices.

Recommendations for Building Inclusive Representation on Wedding Platforms

Below I have summarized the key recommendations I produced for historic sites that market themselves as event places on various wedding platforms. Overall, descriptions on wedding platforms should focus on creating a concise but complete picture, including the setting, landscape, people, and narrative that contribute to the historic site’s significance. It is particularly important not to separate these spaces from the role they played in the institution of slavery.

Link to your homepage or event/wedding page: Taking this step will allow couples to get a better idea of the historic site’s history and what it has to offer for their wedding. Often, wedding industry platforms have an option to message the vendor but provide no link that takes couples to the historic site’s website for more information. Taking this simple step pushes prospective couples to learn more about the place where they would like to hold their wedding.

Make sure your description incorporates the multiple layers of use and history at the historic site: As we know, all historic sites—not just sites of enslavement—have multi-layered histories of occupation that not only enrich their value and significance but also expand the ways in which visitors can connect with the place. Including this information in these descriptions gives couples a more holistic representation of the historic site and breaks the traditional approach in the broader historic preservation movement, which has primarily focused on elevating and preserving the stories and places associated with property owners, who are predominantly white, male, and wealthy.

Recognizing and highlighting the multitude of values, meanings, and uses of a site is imperative to engaging in a more inclusive preservation movement that uses its tools to champion social justice. It also helps foster spaces that allow people of diverse backgrounds to see themselves as part of history, which provides an inherent sense of cultural belonging.

Highlight current efforts to tell a more inclusive story: It is important not just to focus on making sure the site’s description on wedding and event platforms tells the full narrative of a historic site, but also make sure that it highlights current practices that aim to tell the full story. Highlight the research, interpretation, events, or collaborations that are dedicated to telling a more inclusive story at these historic sites. This will not only potentially pique couples' interest but will also allow them to understand how their wedding is supporting the operation and research of the historic site.

Be consistent: It is imperative that descriptions be consistent across all wedding industry platforms so there is no confusion for the couples browsing different platforms.

Beyond a Digital Presence

Beyond providing an inclusive representation of historic sites on wedding platforms, historic sites of enslavement can benefit from evaluating how event rentals fit into their priorities and how descendants should be incorporated into this process. Below is the summary of the recommendations I produced concerning the relationship between event rentals and historic sites’ various goals.

Do not segregate your education and interpretive work from event rentals: While not specifically about the digital presence of historic sites on wedding platforms, it is important for historic sites to consider how their educational and interpretive programs fit into their event rentals in general, not just weddings. Additionally, there are historic sites that have incredible interpretations that integrate the role of slavery throughout the house and grounds, but there is often separation between these programs and event rentals. It is critical to examine the relationship between these two components, especially for sites whose annual revenue is made from event hosting.

Be transparent about where the money is going: If event rentals are supporting the educational and interpretive programs, then there should be transparency with couples about that relationship. Be clear about where the money is being used, be it current research or other initiatives.

Work in partnership with descendants: The symposium raised several concerns from descendants about the romanticization and nostalgia presented during weddings and events, and how they do not respect the memories and the lives of the enslaved. Including the voices, perspectives, and consent of descendants is integral to answering how these sites should continue to operate in the future, not only in terms of weddings and other ephemeral events but in all areas of the site. Descendants, if anything, should be incorporated into the DNA of the site, as these places prospered because of slavery, were built and sustained by it, and were very much Black spaces as much as they were spaces for white accomplished elites.

The National Trust’s Plantation Weddings Symposium not only fostered important discussions around the issues of plantation weddings but also has sparked movement within the Sites of Enslavement Working Group to reevaluate and adopt innovative approaches to how it markets weddings and ephemeral events. The working group is currently revising its representation on wedding platforms to ensure sites are providing fuller, less generic descriptions that are inclusive and incorporate the integral role the institution of slavery played in supporting the property and its owner’s wealth and lifestyle.

Beyond improving historic sites’ digital presence, it is important that historic sites deconstruct the relationship between event rentals and the institution’s other objectives, including education, by fostering transparency with couples and collaborating with descendants to determine if and how event rentals should operate in a way that is respectful to the remembrance of the enslaved.

In the final story in this series, Kristelle Hicks presents a case study on how to create a dialogue about weddings at sites of enslavement through her work at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House.

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Lizzie Mekonnen is a 2020 Mildred Colodny Diversity Scholarship recipient and a dual degree masters student in urban planning and historic preservation at the University of Maryland.

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