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Remembering your heritage can get complicated when said heritage involves a looooot of racism. There is apparently some confusion about the difference between remembering the past and celebrating it. (For example, it's kind of hard to put up a statue that doesn't make the subject look like the coolest thing that's ever existed.) But this article isn't about Confederate war monuments. This is about something that is, in some ways, worse ...
Somehow, Plantation Weddings Are Still A Thing
If you think Southern plantations are beautiful, what with their stately pillars and grand entrances, congratulations on being able to compartmentalize unimaginable human suffering from the symmetry of Antebellum architecture! All you fans of cotillions and slave songs will be pleased to learn that you can go visit a plantation today. You may not find any cotton or tobacco growing there, but you'll probably find a mansion with a bed waiting for you.
In Florida and Georgia alone, there are almost a hundred plantations designated as historical landmarks, while plenty more stay private. That's all well and good, but despite being built on unspeakable human rights violations, those plantations are now popular wedding locations. It's the day to symbolize your eternal love, so why not have it at a place that symbolizes man's inhumanity to man? A casual search of Pinterest turns up a lot of idyllic weddings held in places built and maintained by slave labor. Southern Celebrations Magazine even included plantation weddings in the top ten Southern wedding trends of 2016. Maybe next year, balloon gazebos! Did we mention that there are bones of dead slaves buried there? We'll get to that.
We talked to "Sarah," whose landscaping company maintains some of these properties across two Southern states. The owners, she's found, know these have become romantic destinations. "I was recently at a plantation wedding," she says. "The freshly built chapel was placed in the middle of the entire property ... A sound system blared Christian rock during setup. Yet this chapel had stained glass windows with commemorations of former preachers who've died as far back as 1885. So they'd taken something sacred and rebuilt it centrally for commercial gain. This church was only for the wedding industry."
That's the thing: It's understandable to, say, want to keep a plantation building around because it's an important historical artifact. People need to see these things. But the trick is always that our so-called artifacts are more often than not products of the present. In this case, it seems like these plantations ignore their past to the point of physically rewriting history.
They're Very Eager To Smooth Over The Whole "Slavery" Thing
If a modern plantation has an official historical house, there'll be a plaque or something about slavery, but in private plantations, the subject is usually ignored. Former slave quarters are called other things, like the "tack room." Higher-profile plantations have taken heat for this, and some are now becoming a bit more honest about the subject. Meanwhile, some people are so clueless about the racial overtones of plantation weddings that they ask black wedding planners to organize them. This sometimes doesn't go well.
One plantation that gives wedding tours says they don't discuss slavery "on principle in a wedding," but do talk about it if someone asks. Defending plantation weddings, another person said, "they're often beautiful places, and although they may have a terrible history, now people of any race can enjoy them as venues." Did you hear that, people of color? You have her permission to enjoy getting married on a plantation! And you thought this article was going to be all bad news.
Some people even argue that plantation weddings actually aren't so bad, as they "reclaim" the space. It's the kind of argument an Orange Julius manager might make to angry Cherokee ghosts whose graves lie under his food court bathrooms. Plantation websites usually mention slaves in their fine print, though they're usually referred to as "workers." Hey, you need to let people know why they might find unceremoniously discarded human remains on the grounds.
Yes, There Are Slaves Buried There
Plantation slave graveyards are supposed to be notable historic sites, open for the public and sometimes curated by the slaves' descendants. In reality, these cemeteries are often tucked away, hidden and unlabeled. Sometimes, even those who run the place don't know what's up with them, because the original records were lost or never kept to begin with. Other times, the owners know they're there and pretend they don't exist. "Even long before I started working," says Sarah, "my family was in the landscaping business, so as a kid, I had free reign to wander plantation grounds ... I walked around it for a while, seeing posts driven into the ground and stones set in rows. Then I saw a legible name engraved in one of the stones."
"I [still] stumble on those secret graves today," she says. "Once, I remember getting very close and trying to read the weathered stones. I couldn't tell if they were unmarked or if the names were lost to time ... it was very obvious where the bodies had been, as the land was visibly sinking around each individual grave. But after ten minutes, I had to leave, because something in the atmosphere was almost warning." Sarah says she doesn't believe in ghosts, but still didn't feel like getting sucked in, should a Poltergeist portal sudden open up.
We should note that while these plantations might not mention the men and women who were forced to build the property, they will lay out the history of the white family who owned them in rich detail. One plantation, called (unironically) the "White Castle," advertises the fact that its little antique bells are still in place ... the ones used by white children to summon house servants. Adorable! Another plantation website defends the former owner as being "relatively benevolent" to his slaves, saying some of the slaves lived inside and "slept at the foot of the bed of their master or mistress."
So the lesson is if you truly love Antebellum architecture so much that you're willing to have a wedding at a plantation, try to find one where they at least treated their slaves like dogs? Otherwise, it seems like romanticizing the past is a good way to wind up repeating its mistakes.
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Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.