I Visited A Former Plantation To Understand Why People Get Married There. All I Saw Was Pain.

Where some people see a place to exchange vows, all I see is the enslavement of my ancestors. Do they not know the history, or do they simply not care?

Over the past four years, in the process of researching for my book How the Word Is Passed, I have traveled across the United States to explore how different historical sites reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationships to American slavery — which places were directly confronting their history, which were running from it, and which were doing something in between. I visited a mix of plantations, prisons, cemeteries, museums, memorials, houses, historical landmarks, and cities. And I began this process by looking first in the place where I was born and raised.

In my home state of Louisiana, plantations, with a few exceptions, are part of the landscape not as sites of reckoning, but as spaces of celebration, ahistoricism, or both. When I was in elementary school in New Orleans in the mid-1990s, my class took a field trip to one of the plantations in southern Louisiana, though I’m unable to remember which one. I can recall the amorphous shadow of the event but cannot hold it in my hands. What I did remember of the trip, though, was that my mother joined as a chaperone. So, after having recently visited a few plantations on my own, I decided to ask my mother what she remembered of our shared field trip, to see if her memory might help put some of the scattered pieces of my own together.

My mother’s face is baptized in brown freckles. Her eyes often tell the story before her mouth does, as she is animated by deep passion on a range of topics. What you should know about my mother is that she gives the people she loves everything that she has, and she never stops moving. So, when we spoke about the trip, I followed her around the kitchen while she cooked: onions being chopped, water being boiled, sausages being sliced. I asked her questions while she instructed me to slide some chopped celery into a pot, mince the garlic into smaller pieces, or change the temperature of the heat on the stove.

She told me that she remembered the tour of the plantation was “clearly from a white perspective” as she put rice into the nearby pot. “And we spent a lot of time on the elegance of the house and the grounds…but there wasn't a lot of talk about enslaved people.”

She told me how they showed us the slave quarters, but beyond that, enslaved people were barely mentioned. “There was no talk of ‘this is who did the work,’ and ‘this is how people were treated; this is how they were separated from their families.’ It was just sort of like, ‘these are where the workers live.’” As she spoke, small fragments began coming back to me.

During the trip, my mother said she challenged the guide’s framing of the tour — why they talked about the slave cabins as if they were some sort of cottage for extended family and why enslaved people were not more central to what was being discussed about the property. “I wanted to be there to guard against — maybe not guard against but to be privy to — the conversation as it was presented to my child and to these other children and to the community of children. And yet, I didn't act on it in a way [I’m proud of],” she said, crossing the kitchen with a bell pepper in tow. “Again, I still was of that mindset of not making people uncomfortable, and I was clearly making the tour guide uncomfortable by throwing her off her game. So, it was some mixture of not wanting to be disruptive to the school field trip and not wanting the lady, the nice lady, to be uncomfortable. And so I just let it go, but it was definitely on my mind.”

It was a big point of regret for my mother, that she wished she had pushed the conversation further even if it had risked an awkward exchange.

In Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites, historian Julia Rose wrote of how in 1999, around the time when my mother and I would have gone on this field trip, she had asked the director of the Magnolia Mound Plantation in Baton Rouge for information about the enslaved community who once lived and worked there. The director responded, “There isn’t any.”

An internet search for information about wedding venues in Louisiana leads me to a wedding website called Here Comes the Guide, which presents the reader with “7 Gorgeous Private Estate and Mansion Wedding Venues.” In their description of the options, they write: “Want your wedding to have some serious southern style? Tie the knot at one of Louisiana's sprawling estates or magnificent mansions! Just think: romance in spades, columned porticos, gorgeous gardens, and moss-covered oaks. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful backdrop!”

Each of the seven venues is a former plantation.

A few months after my conversation with my mother, I was back home in Louisiana and visited the Magnolia Mound Plantation myself. The August heat staked its claim on my skin as I stepped out of the car, swallowing the warm, humid air. The south Louisiana summer mosquitos made a feast of my exposed ankles. I arrived as soon as the site opened and was on the first tour of the day along with a couple from England and their 5-month-old baby, who slept soundly in his carrier during the entire presentation.

Our guide, Sheila, was a middle-aged white woman with short blonde hair, a warm smile, and a green lanyard that hung with keys at the end from her neck and jangled like wind chimes whenever she moved. The tour was centered largely on the main house, a late 18th-century French construction that was one of the first homes built in present-day Baton Rouge. Throughout the tour, Sheila spoke about the architecture of the home — how the panels that kept the house upright were built from cypress trees just beyond the river; how the china that was used was imported from France so that during each meal the family could feel a little bit closer to the country from which they came; about the structural anatomy of the French doors, how they were designed to open in ways that brought the breeze in to cool the residents’ faces on even the hottest of days. It is not that enslaved people weren’t mentioned at all — Sheila discussed how they managed the kitchen and were charged with the upkeep of the home — but the discussion about them and their lives were so peripheral to the larger presentation that it made them seem like an afterthought rather than the force central to the place’s existence.

At the end of the tour, I asked Sheila how many people had been enslaved here. At first, she said, there were six, but then it grew to be around 68 over the course of about eight decades. I then asked her if the plantation hosted weddings. She said that it did, and pointed about 100 yards away to a building on the other side of a brown wooden fence. I thanked her and walked down in that direction.

Allison Davis, a Black wedding planner who has thought deeply about the phenomenon of plantation weddings, asked her readers in an early 2018 essay, “Would you get married at Auschwitz, and take portraits by the crematorium because the flowers in the field there are so beautiful?”

I reached out to other wedding planners in an effort to better understand the centuries-long phenomenon of plantation weddings. Christina McCaskey, who runs a business based out of Raleigh, North Carolina, that specializes in hair and makeup for weddings, and who was born and raised in New York, was taken aback by the demand for something that seemed inconceivable to her. “I had so many inquiries for plantation venues and I was just in shock that anyone would pick a place like that for the happiest day of their life,” she told me.

McCaskey said her business refuses to participate in any weddings held on plantations because she finds the practice so abhorrent. “I've had a lot of conversations mainly with wedding vendors where I've said, ‘It’s just not something that I can fathom bringing my team into.’ Because the places where they’ve set up … are often slave quarters that they’ve made into bridal suites.”

Some of these places, McCaskey said, have attempted to obscure their relationship to slavery. They are places that want to profit from the antebellum aesthetics of the space without having to think about who might have built and worked in them in the first place. “Walnut Hill Plantation is now just called Walnut Hill. And Rose Hill Plantation is now just called Rose Hill,” she said. “Some clients don't even know that it was a plantation because they haven’t done their research and they just book it because it's a beautiful place.”

I asked McCaskey if she thought people continue to have weddings at plantations because they don’t know the history or if it is simply that they don’t care. “I think it's probably a combination of things,” she said. “I think so many of them are just — everyone is whitewashed. And so they don’t even — it doesn’t cross their mind because they don’t come in contact with anyone besides other white people.”

McCaskey’s is part of a small but growing group of businesses in the wedding ecosystem that are refusing to participate in weddings held on former plantation grounds even though that decision might come at a significant financial cost. Jordan Maney, a wedding planner based in San Antonio, Texas, also doesn’t serve clients who want to have weddings at plantations and thinks that while there are some people who simply don’t know and will change their minds if the history is brought to their attention, there are others who are resentful of it being brought up at all. “You also have people who don't want to reconcile, and don't want to empathize or even consider a different experience, because they just want what they want. ‘And why did you ruin this? Because all I wanted to do was get married at this place and now I can't unsee it,’” she said.

And while McCaskey has seen plantations that attempt to obscure their history, Maney said she has come across a number of places that were not plantations but attempt to aesthetically fashion themselves as such because they know how high the demand is for them. “It’s worse to me and even weirder,” she said.

Erica Greenwold Reisen, who also works in North Carolina, said she prefers not to do plantation weddings but that the question of what is or isn’t a plantation venue isn’t always as clear as one might think. A place might call itself a farm, but an excavation of its history might reveal the family who lived there “owned” more than pigs and cattle. She draws the line at venues “trying to capitalize on that good-old-days Southern heritage” and attempting to use the aura, aesthetics, and nostalgia of the Old South to market something that Reisen said doesn’t feel right. “I personally don't know anyone who I would say intentionally is like, ‘Oh, I want to have a plantation wedding because I really wish we were back in the days of having plantations and slavery.’ I wouldn't say it’s that bad, but I definitely think there are people who have grown up here idolizing the idea of Southern wealth, and that unfortunately then translates to the plantation culture.”

Aneesa Glines, who runs her own wedding planning company, said the terrain is particularly difficult to navigate for planners of color. “I recently had a bride who booked a venue without knowing it was a plantation venue, because the owners did not say that in any of the literature on the website. And she was not a person of color, so it just wasn’t even walking through her mind. But as soon as I got out of the car and saw the place, really my heart sank because it still feels so heartbreaking, the history of slavery. It doesn’t feel like something I can simply put aside and have guests dancing on the same spot that this history happened.”

Glines told me that a lot of people she encounters who either host weddings on plantations or want to have weddings on plantations believe “that was the past” and “these bad things are no longer happening on those grounds,” so it shouldn’t offend anyone who simply wants to use the space to celebrate something beautiful.

“I think it's just easier for those who [don’t] feel [it as] part of their own family history to then try to quote-unquote change the script and give it new life,” she said.

Something Glines, like Reisen, is still working through is the question, Where do you draw the line? And what does one do about the places in which slavery is a central part of their history, even if they weren’t plantations? Glines recalled a difficult conversation with her team. “One team member’s response was, ‘If we say no to plantation weddings because of the principle, don't you feel like almost everywhere can have a negative history?’ We're minutes away from UNC Chapel Hill, which has beautiful wedding venues on their grounds. But it was one of the first public universities mostly built by slaves. How do we draw the line there?”

As a Black woman wedding planner in the South, Glines continues to grapple with the intersection of what her responsibilities are and the ethics of how she and her business should operate in this complex ecosystem. While she’s always asking herself hard questions, some parts of the conversation, she believes, are straightforward.

“I think there’s a bigger question of what we do with these places. It's the same thing around the Confederate statues. Do we take them all down? Is that erasing history? There are just so many arguments that we go into on that. But to me, it just feels very clear that one of the happiest days of your life — a celebration when you hope you're bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, and you hope you're creating a space that feels safe and welcome — is an inappropriate use for them.”

When I visited, the large brown pavilion on the Magnolia Mound Plantation was held upright by dozens of square pillars that reached from the floor to the roof. Cylinders of dust spiraled up from the cement floor. Fans and lights hung from the horizontal beams that stretched across the ceiling, and a single white plastic table surrounded by four folding chairs sat in the center of the space. The grass around the pavilion was freshly mowed, and the thin, dismembered blades would intermittently be picked up by the wind and dance around my feet.

Later, I would look up photos from wedding ceremonies that had been held under this gazebo. Parabolas of radiant light bulbs hung from the ceiling, ornamenting the space between the wooden beams. White and red ribbons were twirled from extended arms as the bride and groom made their entrance between two rows of jubilant loved ones. The couple shared a kiss beneath the bending branches of an old oak tree, their bodies glowing from the camera’s luminous flash, both of them wrapped in the choreography of a new love.

I walked over to the table and sat down in the pavilion, then leaned back in the chair and surveyed the land around me. The wood in the pavilion smelled of smoke and rain. Mosquitos continued to nip at my ankles. I thought about what it meant to sit in a gazebo where people exchanged their vows and was struck by how a place could mean something so profoundly different to different people — how a place that represented so much pain for me could be a place of so much joy and celebration for others. I wondered: Did people not understand what happened here and what this place represented? Or did they come here specifically because of what they knew had happened here? Was it an erasure of the past or a relishing in it? In a gazebo where people swore their love to one another, all I saw was a place that had consigned my ancestors to bondage. I saw a place that swore we were not worthy of celebrating the very thing so many people came here to enjoy. ●

Clint Smith is a staff writer at the Atlantic. He has previously received fellowships from New America, the Art for Justice Fund, Cave Canem, and the National Science Foundation.

His essays, poems, and scholarly writings have been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, Poetry magazine, the Paris Review, the Harvard Educational Review, and elsewhere. His first full-length collection of poetry, Counting Descent, was published by Write Bloody Publishing in 2016. Clint’s debut nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed, explores how different sites across the country reckon with, or fail to reckon with, their relationship to the history of slavery. Born and raised in New Orleans, he currently lives in Maryland with his wife and their two children. He can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

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