Lowcountry plantations reluctant to respond to wedding venue criticism

Lowcountry plantations reluctant to respond to wedding venue criticism
Changes are now underway after Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, sent letters to companies urging them to commit to no longer featuring vendors who advertise former slave plantations for wedding use. (Source: Live 5 News)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Popular websites for wedding resources, like The Knot and Pinterest, have come under fire for the way they promote former slave plantations as wedding venues.

Changes are now underway after Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, sent letters to companies urging them to commit to no longer featuring vendors who advertise these locations for wedding use.

“The wedding industry makes hundreds of millions of dollars in profit by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry, and in doing so, routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery,” Arisha Hatch, the vice president of Color of Change, said in a statement. “Plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen, which, over the course of the Atlantic Slave Trade, enslaved 10.7 million Black people in the Americas. The vast majority of the wedding industry’s marketing fails to recognize plantations as sacred spaces where the bodies of many Black people’s ancestors are buried in unmarked graves to this day.”

Meanwhile, several Lowcountry plantations have been reluctant to respond.

Representatives with Magnolia Plantation & Gardens have not returned our calls or emails for comment.

Middleton Place representatives had agreed to an on-camera interview Friday, but later declined to comment at this time.

Drayton Hall Plantation’s communications and marketing manager declined to comment Friday.

The spokesperson for McLeod Plantation failed to return our calls.

Patrick Properties Hospitality Group, which operates venues like Lowndes Grove did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

However, a representative with Boone Hall Plantation, which has been criticized in the past, did provide a written statement.

“The history of the past is important. How that history is perceived can be affected by the way and manner it is presented,” the statement said, in part. “Slavery is a part of the nation's history that also took place at Boone Hall Plantation. Since day one, when the McRae family purchased Boone Hall, there has been a commitment to educating and informing visitors accurately about the history of slavery.”

Rick Benthall, Boone Hall’s director of marketing, said the details of the plantation’s history can be reviewed by brides and grooms, upon request.

McLeod Plantation was also recently recognized as one of the state’s “Sites of Conscience.” According to a press release, the designation places the park site among an international coalition of museums, historic sites and memorials that confront both the history of what happened at the site and lasting impacts. By their definition, Sites of Conscience “face all aspects of history and also activate the historical perspective with dynamic public dialogue on related issues we face today and what we can do about them.”

“Since 2000, Charleston County Parks has been leading the way with its conscientious interpretation of slavery and African Americans’ ongoing quest for equality,” Shawn Halifax, CCPRC’s cultural history interpretation coordinator said in the press release. “Recognition of this work resulted in the park system’s on-going collaboration with the Smithsonian‘s National Museum of African American History and Culture to deliver training designed to prepare museums and historic sites around the nation to ethically interpret slavery and its legacy.”

It’s this legacy Color of Change hopes to protect from words like “charming,” “elegant,” and “sumptuous.” According to the advocacy group, the phrases have been used on wedding resource sites to describe the places where Black people’s ancestors were tortured and stripped of their most fundamental rights.

“It would be a great sign of social responsibility for these platforms to rectify how they feature plantations as wedding venues,” Hatch said.

Sites like Pinterest, Zola, and The Knot are responding with changes.

On Pinterest, people can still save this content to their Pinterest boards and search for it in Pinterest Search, but they will now be shown an advisory that some results may violate Pinterest’s policies.

The company is also limiting the distribution of content and accounts that are promoting themselves as wedding venues across Pinterest, including in autocomplete, search recommendations, email notifications and SEO.

A spokesperson said Pinterest had not accepted ads for these venues in the past, so that's not new and it's not changing.

“Weddings should be a symbol of love and unity. Plantations represent none of those things. We are grateful to Color of Change for bringing attention to this disrespectful practice. We are working to limit the distribution of this content and accounts across our platform, and continue to not accept advertisements for them,” said a Pinterest spokesperson.

A statement from The Knot Worldwide said plantation venues will not be removed from The Knot and Wedding Wire, but the company is working with Color of Change to create additions to its current guidelines.

“These guidelines will prohibit any vendors on The Knot or WeddingWire from using laungauge [sic] that romanticizes or glorifies a history that includes slavery. The new guidelines will not only apply to venues but to all vendors. We want to work with our vendors to help present themselves in the most respectful way and to inspire positive change for the future. We will remove any vendors from our sites that do not comply,” a statement said. “Color of Change brought an issue to light about the romanticization [sic] of plantations in the modern wedding industry. We are not removing plantation venues from The Knot or WeddingWire. We are working with Color of Change to create additions to our current content guidelines that will ensure all couples feel welcomed and respected on our sites….We're grateful to Color of Change for bringing this issue to us to develop new content guidelines that are grounded in history and respectful to all couples.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Zola said the company is also focused on ensuring its policies and guidelines are inclusive.

“We re-evaluated all our venues listed on Zola and determined we will not allow vendors to list who are plantations. We recognize that this is a painful issue and have been evaluating on an ongoing basis. We appreciate Color of Change for bringing this issue forward,” a statement said.

ENTIRE STATEMENT FROM BOONE HALL PLANTATION

The history of the past is important. How that history is perceived can be effected by the way and manner it is presented.

The McRae family purchased the plantation in 1955 and opened the property for public tours in 1956. Slavery is a part of the nation's history that also took place at Boone Hall Plantation. Since day one, when the McRae family purchased Boone Hall, there has been a commitment to educating and informing visitors accurately about the history of slavery. The nine brick slave cabins on the property have been in an evolving state as interpretive exhibits since the plantation opened.

In 2009, a decision was made to further expand how black history was presented. That commitment resulted in the Black History In America Exhibit that is on display as part of the Boone Hall experience.

What really makes this critically acclaimed exhibit unique is that this story is told using nine of the original slave cabins located on Boone Hall Plantation that were built between 1790 and 1810. Each of these buildings present different themes as they relate to black history. Visitors are able to see the different aspects of daily life, how black Americans worked and lived, struggles that were faced, as well as follow different periods of historical progression from the beginning all the way up to present day.

Pre-recorded narratives, audiovisual presentations, photos, pictures, biographical information, and actual historical relics, are interwoven and meshed together in displays throughout the structures presenting this exhibit. So buildings that were once used for slavery are now being used to tell the black history story with honor and respect.

"Exploring The Gullah Culture" is one of the most well received presentations we do as part of our tours at Boone Hall Plantation. This culture was adapted by African slaves when they came to the Lowountry. Through the only presentations of this kind given on any plantation in the area, true descendants of the Gullah people present the history of this culture through storytelling, song, and dance that is at times educational, at times entertaining, and at times very moving and emotional. Visitors often tell us this one of the most favorite experiences they have on visits to the area because it is so genuine and spoken from the heart.

These Gullah ladies share uplifting messages that project love and understanding about the hardships of the past in relationship to where they are today. Gullah descendant Miss Gloria Ford emphasizes in her presentation that “We must let go of the divisiveness of the past in order to move forward and claim the future.” What an incredible universal message that is for all of us.

ENTIRE STATEMENT FROM HELEN HILL, CEO OF EXPLORE CHARLESTON

"Explore Charleston is currently working with our members, venues and other partners across the wedding industry to make certain the members understand what is being done to advance the conversation around slavery, the civil rights era, and reconciliation. The Charleston region takes this conversation more seriously than any other community in the nation.

We advocate and embrace our authentic history. To understand Charleston is to understand a community that navigated pain and prosperity, heartbreak and hope, to achieve bold progress and realize a stronger sense of community. Progress continues thanks to an intentional, constructive dialogue in our community today.

Any word that is taken out of context can be misconstrued. No property is "romanticizing" or "celebrating" slavery. Plantations across the Lowcountry are doing exactly what they should be doing to advance the discussion and understanding around Charleston's history. They work diligently to tell the whole story of our historic sites and the people - free and enslaved - who lived and worked there. Special events, including weddings, held at these locations support jobs and the funding needed to continue their critical mission.

No part of our past is hidden. The interpretive programs at the plantations exist when special events are held, just as they do when individuals or tour groups visit. If someone wants to have a conversation about how a community approaches this important dialogue, they should come to Charleston."

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