For Chandler Willis Helms, getting married at Boone Hall Plantation in 2018 was a dream come true.
“I have always wanted a plantation wedding,” Helms, who is white, told BuzzFeed News. “I’ve always dreamed of getting married at Boone Hall, just because of the location and the history. Everything about Boone Hall is beautiful.”
Boone Hall is a thriving wedding venue, hosting an average of 130 weddings a year, owner Willie McRae told BuzzFeed News. Woman Getting Married, a website detailing the cost of weddings at different venues, estimates that a wedding there can run an average of $25,000.
The plantation, however, plays a role in the darkest period of American history. Boone Hall was built on the backs of black slaves, who harvested cotton and pecans and produced brick on its grounds. This heritage is currently documented on the plantation’s grounds, in exhibits at nine of the original property’s slave cabins.
Today, large oak trees line either side of the road that leads to Boone Hall’s main house and neat, sprawling grounds. It’s a working farm and a popular tourist attraction in South Carolina, fielding about 200,000 visitors annually, said McRae, whose family has owned the property since 1955.
And it’s become an ideal venue for many couples. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were married there, and it has appeared in The Notebook and Days of Our Lives, among other movies and TV shows. It was the only venue Helms toured while planning her wedding, she said, “because we knew we wanted to get married there.”
Plantation weddings have long been a source of discomfort. Then, last week, the discussion hit at the intersection of business, social media, and America’s reckoning with its horrific past and its ramifications to this day when the civil rights advocacy group Color of Change successfully pressured Pinterest, the Knot, Zola, and other wedding planning websites to stop promoting and romanticizing plantations as wedding venues.
The move raised questions about whether places where generations of black people were tortured, chained, and killed are appropriate locations for weddings.
Helms said she was disappointed to hear last week’s news because, to her, these plantations are acknowledgments of the country’s past. The criticism against plantation weddings, Helms said, largely comes from social media and people who don’t live in the South.
“Because of the world we live in now, it’s all about race and everyone wants to put everyone in a different category,” she said. “I think it’s a shame because everyone’s so accepting, and social media is dividing people because people get so offended by everything.”
There’s a lack of comprehensive records on slavery at Boone Hall, as with many plantations, which frustrates researchers and the current land’s owners, according to Emma Walcott-Wilson, a University of Tennessee doctoral candidate studying plantation tourism and interpretations of slavery and research fellow at Tourism RESET, an initiative focusing on social inequity in the tourism industry.
Records of the treatment of enslaved people are hard to come by, Walcott-Wilson said, but “framing violence at plantations can’t be limited to acts of brutality — individual acts of brutality of people getting abused physically."
“Because the violence of slavery is ownership,” she told BuzzFeed News, “and it’s the active dehumanization of people.”
Boone Hall was founded in the late 1600s by John Boone, one of the first settlers of the South Carolina colony. The land was later sold to the Horlbeck family, who planted cotton and produced brick. According to one record, 85 slaves were producing 4 million bricks a year at Boone Hall.
Today, nine of the cabins where enslaved people lived remain on the plantation, along a long stretch of oak trees. Many couples take their wedding photos nearby, and the cabins are close to one of the sites for a wedding ceremony. Live presentations of the Gullah culture, which has roots in West African traditions, take place at one of the slave cabins. There are artifacts and exhibits inside that depict the lives of the people who were enslaved there and across the country.
Boone Hall told BuzzFeed News in a statement that the live presentations are conducted by “true descendants of the Gullah people.”
“Visitors from all over the world often tell us this is one of the most favorite experiences they have on visits to the area because it is so genuine and spoken from the heart,” the statement said. “Upon request and when we are asked about it, we review some of this information with potential brides and grooms, special events inquiries, potential visitors, or anyone who is looking to know more information about what we do here in regard to this issue.”
The prominence of the slave quarters means it’s not particularly hard to find wedding photo shoots where the slave cabins serve as a backdrop.
Brandon Lata, a wedding photographer in Charleston, said he’s aware of the slave quarters and most of his clients don’t want to include the cabins in their photo shoots because they see it as disrespectful.
“In my experience, most people have a real reverence...not a disrespectful attitude toward what actually happened there originally,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Most people are like, ‘I don’t want those in the background. I don’t want my wedding photos to have slave cabins in it. I feel like it’s disrespectful.’”
McRae, who took over the business in 1978, said the slave quarters are a “valuable part of the plantation” today.
“We don’t do it to incite anybody’s feelings or anything, we just try to tell the truth about it,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Another popular site for wedding ceremonies at Boone Hall is the Cotton Dock, which sits on Horlbeck Creek. To get there, guests walk along a dirt road between the cabins.
Helms, whose wedding reception was on the Cotton Dock, said the presence of the slave cabins and its proximity to the celebration “did not have influence on me choosing Boone Hall.”
She said she considered the plantation’s history throughout her planning process and how her black friends would feel about the place.
“It did go through my mind: Will they be offended that I have my wedding here?” Helms said. “And they came and had a great time — wonderful memories [were] made with them. They were not offended. And so that just made me feel better, because we have come so far that there’s no need to backtrack now.”
Alexandra C., a Washington, DC, native who lives in Charleston, said she and her then-fiancé picked Boone Hall for their wedding because of its history and beauty. (Alexandra did not want her last name used for privacy reasons.) It was the first location they visited, and they “never considered any other venue.”
“Many guests mentioned [they] loved getting to walk around and read the facts around the plantation, see the grounds, and get to experience the piece of history it brings,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Alexandra, who is white, said she was surprised by the wedding websites’ decisions to stop promoting plantation weddings.
“As long as when choosing it as a venue, you respect that there’s a lot of history there, people shouldn’t see it as such an issue,” she said. “They do have ugly histories, but that doesn’t mean it should be hidden or not a venue.”
At the heart of the discussion about plantation weddings is whether or not they should be used for celebrations and events, instead of serving mainly as a memorial to the people who were subjugated and treated inhumanely. And plantations continue to carry the significance of the violence that white supremacy has wrought. When prosecutors traced the route that Dylann Roof, the white man who shot and killed nine black churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015, took prior to the attack, they found that he visited a Confederate museum, a Confederate soldier cemetery, a slave cemetery, and four former slave plantations, Boone Hall being one of them. He took at least one photo in a slave cabin at Boone Hall, prosecutors said.
“There’s no way to separate the beauty and the violence of plantations,” Walcott-Wilson said. “They are the same in many respects. The people who built that beauty were enslaved people."
Dr. Bernard Powers, the director of the College of Charleston’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, told BuzzFeed News that the inherent beauty of plantations must be contextualized.
“If these places looked the same and had a different history, no one would object and they would simply be recognized for their beauty. And they are beautiful today because in part due to the knowledge of slave gardeners who tended [to] them,” he said. “Recognize the people who did the work and contrast the beauty with the brutality. Both occurred and must be recognized and reconciled.”
This country, Walcott-Wilson added, was built by slaves. Finding a wedding venue anywhere that hasn’t been touched by slavery would be difficult.
“The primary difference,” she said, “is that Southern plantations have long been marketed as this romantic vision of the old South and now are trying, finally, to interpret violence there. And those narratives are really grinding against each other.”
McRae said when he started running the plantation and opened it up to events, the property was not initially in the wedding business. But people kept insisting that they host weddings, “so we started having weddings, and it’s progressed from that.”
He said Color of Change and others criticizing plantations for hosting weddings don’t understand what Boone Hall is about.
“They’re not interested in people coming together. They seem to be interested in seeing what they can do to fuel the fire of racism,” McRae said. “And that’s the last thing that we want to do here.”
Helms’ husband, Austin Helms, told BuzzFeed News that plantations today are typically “just an old house and an old piece of land.”
“They don’t have slaves now. There’s nothing that goes on there now that’s unjust morally, or anything like that,” Austin, who is white, said.
“There’s injustice that happens everywhere,” he added. “I don’t know anybody that was a slave, and there’s not anybody that is alive today that knows anybody that was a slave.”
The discussion around plantation weddings hit Lauren, a North Carolinian who got married at Boone Hall, differently. Lauren, who did not want to disclose her last name for privacy reasons, said it wasn’t until several months into the planning that she realized the weight of Boone Hall’s history. By that time, she and her then-fiancé had already made several nonrefundable deposits for wedding vendors.
Lauren, who is white, said she first stumbled upon Boone Hall on Instagram, when she was researching wedding venues and saw photos of a wedding at the Cotton Dock.
While touring wedding venues in South Carolina with her fiancé in 2017, she “immediately just fell in love” with Boone Hall. She said she’d always loved the sight of oak trees with Spanish moss, and “that’s exactly what Boone Hall gave us.”
They visited the plantation a few times with wedding vendors after putting down a deposit. On several occasions, a live presentation at the slave quarters was going on while they were there.
Lauren said every time they walked past the cabins where enslaved people had lived, “I got a little weird feeling in my gut, like this isn’t right.”
On the day of her wedding, while they were taking photos before the ceremony, they had to walk past the slave quarters. “Even though I had a million and one things going on,” she said, “it definitely crossed my mind.”
Lauren said it really clicked for her when the news about the Color of Change campaign came out last week.
“Everything that they were saying about plantations — romanticizing a plantation — I totally agree with that 100%,” Lauren said. “It kinda sucks, you know, but I was talking to my husband and I was like, you know, this is the reality of white privilege. And I’m someone who considers myself to be very much aware of other people’s situations. But, also, the reality is that I am a white female who grew up middle-class, and so I do have those white-privilege goggles on. And I try to always be super mindful of other people’s situations, but in this situation, I wasn’t. And I really regret that.”
McRae said weddings aren’t a big part of the plantation’s business, and he doesn’t think the lack of promotion on wedding planning websites will affect Boone Hall. “If they don’t want us in their publication, we don’t care to be in it,” he said.
Boone Hall won’t stop hosting weddings anytime soon, McRae said, but it is coming under more scrutiny. On the plantation’s wedding Instagram account, a photo of a couple flanked by oak trees that was posted six months ago sparked backlash recently over its caption: “If These Trees Could Talk…”
Angry commenters responded to the post, criticizing the “insensitivity” of the caption. One of the commenters, Mikaela Streate, who identifies as a woman of color, told BuzzFeed News that the caption “immediately reminded me of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit,’” a song about the lynching of black people.
“If only the trees could weep, maybe then, these people would see that these places should be used for educational purposes only,” Streate wrote in an Instagram DM. “These plantations became very wealthy from the abuse and mistreatment of POC.”
Lauren said she’s wrestling with her decision to get married at Boone Hall. She doesn’t want guilt to overshadow the importance of her wedding day, but she said she’s “very much aware of the impact that choosing that venue has.”
And if she could, Lauren said she’d do things differently.
“These plantations should not be romanticizing the history of what actually took place there,” she said. “For that reason, no, I would not go back if I could go back and redo it, knowing what I know now. I would not select that as a wedding venue.”
Alexandra C. is based in Charleston. An earlier version of this post misstated the location.