Maria Izaguirre Graves’ Instagram feed is full of magazine-worthy photos from her January wedding to husband Julian Graves. In one, she’s twirling in a lacy, form-fitting trumpet dress; in another, she’s getting ready with her 12 bridesmaids, all in leopard print robes; in a third, she and her new husband are kissing under a giant flower arch, Maria’s long veil trailing behind her. “Everything I wanted came out so beyond perfect,” she wrote on the flower-arch photo. In another caption, next to a photo of cascading Spanish moss, Maria, 27, wrote that since The Notebook was filmed at their wedding venue, she decided to incorporate quotes from the movie on the cocktail napkins. “The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds…”
The Notebook isn’t the only notable aspect of the picturesque venue where the Graves, who live in Jacksonville, FL, were married: This centuries-old spot, whose spectacular oak-lined drive was created in the 18th century, is a former plantation, where dozens of enslaved people were once forced to harvest cotton and pecans, and handcraft millions of bricks that were then used in the construction of countless other buildings in the region. Visitors who stop by Boone Hall Plantation & Gardens today won’t find the original plantation house standing, but they can see some of the cabins where enslaved people lived; they’re not far from where couples take their wedding photos. And there are a lot of couples who do this. Boone Hall — which is also a working farm that hosts a popular annual strawberry festival, a museum, and a concert venue — is one of the most popular wedding venues around Charleston, SC. Despite the fact that there has been a concerted effort recently, on behalf of racial justice advocates and some Black wedding planners in the South, to discourage weddings on former plantations, Boone Hall hosts an average of 130 weddings a year, according to what the venue told Refinery29, and is often booked over a year in advance.
Julian, 26, who is African American and Puerto Rican, says a lot of his family members were uncomfortable when he and Maria said they were getting married at Boone Hall. But, the Navy officer says, his four-and-a-half-month deployment on a submarine during their engagement left Maria lonely, only able to find solace in wedding planning, and he wanted to support her during this tough time. Maria fielded his family’s concerns, and sent Julian articles so they could make an informed decision together. Originally from Venezuela, Maria says she couldn’t “relate on the same level” since “the history is a little different.” The couple explains that they had spent a lot of time in Charleston during their relationship and had fallen in love with Boone Hall when visiting the pumpkin patch in the fall.
They also knew — if not personally — another couple who had their wedding at Boone Hall: Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were married there in 2012, an event that was featured in Martha Stewart Weddings. But, Maria and Julian did not know the celebrity couple subsequently got serious backlash for their choice, even issuing a public apology last summer, not long after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis and protests over killings of unarmed Black Americans spread across the U.S. “What we saw at the time was a wedding venue on Pinterest. What we saw after was a place built upon devastating tragedy,” Reynolds told Fast Company, calling the decision “a giant fucking mistake.”
Julian, though, saw it as an opportunity to reclaim the past. “My ancestors very well could have been enslaved here, could have built this place,” he tells Refinery29. “Never before did they think we would be able to possess this property, even for just one night — where we made the rules. It’s a gorgeous place built by our people. It still exists — why should we continue not to enjoy it?” He says he explained to his relatives that the plantation doesn’t try to hide its past. “I told them I did not want to support any company that supported slavery or bigotry. I felt that Boone Hall had made strides to acknowledge their slave history and make the community better in spite of it. You can either decide to fuel racism or rise above it.” In the end, he says, his family showed up.
In a statement sent to Refinery29, Boone Hall emphasized its commitment to “educating and informing visitors accurately about the history of slavery.” One of their most popular exhibits explores the Gullah culture, a cultural and linguistic tradition from West Africa, through presentations by its descendants. As far as weddings go: “We treasure our relationships with the couples that have chosen to get married at Boone Hall, and, when needed, we respond to them in private with honest and personal discussions to address any concerns that they may have.”
There were over 46,000 plantations in operation in 1860 in the American South, and nearly 4 million enslaved people in the U.S., with 2.5 million in the “Cotton Belt” alone. Today, there are about 375 plantation museums in the U.S., most of which do not hold weddings. While some former plantations, both those that are and aren’t wedding venues, acknowledge their history with educational programs of varying quality, others seem to have “rebranded” in recent years and swept their pasts under the rug, often by simply taking the word “plantation” out of their names. Still, some others are making sure that their history of enslavement, rape, and abuse is not only remembered, but is also respected by a refusal to make plantations into places of celebration.
“A plantation is an economic system, a business, in which its profitability is linked to the forced labour of enslaved people,” Dr. Joy Banner, director of communications at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which is dedicated to the history of slavery, told Town & Country. “Plantations are the sites of violence and brutality; an enslaved labor camp with a pretty house on it.” Whitney Plantation does not hold weddings; instead, it is a place for visitors to confront and grapple with the violence of the past. At a time when even critical race theory, an academic tool that uses race as a lens to examine structures of power, is being attacked, it’s more important than ever to examine this history. “The beliefs and myths people have about plantations are linked to how we feel overall about race and race relations and Black labor and service and white supremacy overall,” says Dr. Banner. “What is happening now on a large scale with the Black Lives Matter movement is the identification of humanity: how it connects us and how we can confront and recognize racial trauma and suffering. These spaces have a huge opportunity to become places for learning. There is history here. They can be spaces to help each other address the trauma and heal.”
We reached out to dozens of couples who have gotten married on plantations and to at least 20 wedding planners in the South. Most couples were unwilling to speak on this subject, while some of the wedding planners declined to go on the record, instead pointing us to the overwhelming popularity of plantation venues in Southern cities like Charleston, implying that they’re hard to avoid for couples and planners alike. The couples we did hear back from all said they do not regret getting married at a plantation. But some who spoke to us asked to remain anonymous or not to go on the record, for fear of potential backlash. When asked about the pain many Black people have publicly expressed in response to these weddings, most recently the writer Clint Smith in his new book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, one woman stopped responding to our DMs.
Like Julian Graves, Tifyane Tipton, 27, who is Black and lives in Charleston, says she was proud to get married on a plantation. In an Instagram caption on a photo of her wedding, which was in 2018 at Boone Hall, she wrote, “This nation was built off the backs of my people. If I were to think of a place to have my wedding where people weren’t sold for profit, it wouldn’t be in America. It couldn’t be. Slavery still exists in many forms and fashions today in the U.S. I thank my ancestors for all of the freedoms we have today. To be able to have the freedom to celebrate and dance and sing wherever we want! Are we to deny these atrocities happened? No. Are we to forget? No. That’s why I got married on a plantation: to never forget where I came from AND to bring awareness to others that this DID happen [to] and will happen again if we aren’t careful.”
The majority of people who get married on former plantations, however, seem to be white, and their reasoning is less about reclaiming a painful history and more about pretty trees and, well, cheap hors d’oeuvres. Lauren*, 29, got married at Ormond Plantation near New Orleans in 2020 because it was cost-effective for her 250 guests, at $65 a person, she says, adding that New Orleans weddings are expected to have lots of food and an open bar, which can get very expensive. “People will literally not come to the wedding for not having an open bar.” She says she had to book the venue two years ahead.
“At the time, it being a former slave property wasn’t in the front of my mind because we were so stressed finding a place,” Lauren says. “Fast-forward two years, plantation weddings were being more frowned upon and I understood the reason more, but at that point it was too late and I would have lost a lot of money.” Plus, she says, after looking into the history of the property, she didn’t find any record of enslaved people. Some online sources suggest a past of slavery, so we reached out to Ormond to ask about its history, and have yet to hear back. The venue is now billing itself as “Ormond Manor” on its website, even though the website is still “plantation dot com.” Lauren adds, “I spoke with several of my coloured friends and asked them how they felt and apologized if I upset or hurt them by my actions. [I apologized] for choosing the venue and [asked] them how they felt about it. And most said it wouldn’t have been their choice, but they aren’t upset with me for mine, they understand money-wise it was the best choice. Which led to the more difficult conversations of what it’s like being a person of colour.”
Some people say they were just not that aware of their venue’s history. “To be completely honest, I didn’t even think of the history of the plantation until I received your message, and that was a moment where I said, ‘Oh damn’ because I realized how privileged I am that that thought didn’t even cross my mind,” Jen*, 24, who proposed to her fiancee and surprised her with an engagement shoot at Boone Hall earlier this year, tells Refinery29. “All I thought of was how beautiful the trees would look cascading over us for the engagement, and that it is where a scene in The Notebook was filmed, so that added a cool, romantic aspect to it.” Asked whether she would use Boone Hall as a venue again, she said yes. “Honestly I would probably still make the same decision, it was a beautiful location. No one has had any problem with it, and it’s been shared all over TikTok, Facebook, and large pages have shared it with no negative feedback.” The couple will be celebrating their wedding on a beach.
While plantation weddings are still popular in some circles, many major wedding-oriented companies have taken steps to distance themselves from the venues. In 2019, several wedding-planning sites like Pinterest, The Knot, and Zola, pledged to stop promoting plantation weddings and using language that romanticizes them. (The Knot still includes plantations in its venue listings, although it says it has revisited the language used to promote them.) This came in response to a targeted campaign by Color of Change, a racial justice organization.
The petition on the Color of Change website reads, “We’re calling on you to ensure that vendors who market plantations as wedding venues are no longer featured on your website. Plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen and are the places where over 10.7 million Black people were enslaved, tortured, and murdered throughout the continent. Yet, the wedding features that remain on your site sell plantations as quaint, dreamy locations to get married.
“Marketing plantations as ‘classic’ or ‘timeless’ places to celebrate a big day communicates a clear message to your Black clients and readers: that their suffering is something to be celebrated, if not completely erased. Plantations are former forced labor camps that brutalized and murdered millions of Black people in the U.S. — they are not party spaces. That is why we are calling on you to stop promoting plantations as wedding venues in your publication today.”
Since 2019, Zola has expanded its policy on plantation weddings from simply removing plantations from its listings to also asking vendors to sign a pledge. “We do not work directly with, and we do not promote, any wedding venue with a history of slavery,” writes communications director Emily Forrest Skurnik. “The Zola plantation wedding policy applies to any wedding venue that is currently described as a former slave plantation or was otherwise once used as a slave plantation or enslaved people on its premises, to the best of our knowledge. Before joining our trusted community, all vendors have to say ‘they do’ to our Vendor Pledge of principles which include tolerance, acceptance, and respect.”
More and more wedding planners, particularly Black wedding planners, have spoken out in opposition to plantation weddings as well, helping move the needle on a conversation they say largely didn’t exist several years ago. Gail Johnson, an Atlanta-based wedding planner, who is Black, says that “there’s kind of an unspoken language that Black people don’t do weddings at plantations because of all the memories of slavery and how that was basically whitewashed.” She says she hasn’t had many clients who have brought up wanting to get married on a plantation.
“Even now, there’s still a lot of hurt, a lot of healing,” Johnson tells Refinery29. “I know when I went to a plantation, I got the most eerie feeling, just something that was so strange. And I do know there are other people who are embracing their heritage this way, and they can connect with it. I couldn't. And the average person can’t connect with it.”
Even now, there's still a lot of hurt, a lot of healing. I know when I went to a plantation, I got the most eerie feeling, just something that was so strange. And I do know there are other people who are embracing their heritage this way, and they can connect with it. I couldn't.
gail johnson, atlanta wedding planner
Johnson says she, too, has noticed a lot of former-plantation venues changing their names to things like “manor” or “estate” to escape the “plantation” stigma. “I call it trickery. They were losing business. And then, Black Lives Matter happened. So it’s a business move. I think it's terrible that they are doing things like that. And then, you find some venues who say they're educating, but they're really not. They’re teaching history about the owners and their beautiful houses and gardens, but very little about the people who cooked for them, the people who cleaned their houses, the people who took care of their kids.”
Allison Davis, a Black wedding planner in New York City, wrote an essay for A Practical Wedding in 2018 asking readers not to choose plantations as wedding venues. “Would you get married at Auschwitz, and take portraits by the crematorium because the flowers in the field there are so beautiful?” she asked. “There are properties out there that loudly reject the original purpose of their land and structures, and make some effort to support organizations that centre African Americans. But in my mind, no amount of peonies, lace, tin mint julep cups, blush bridesmaid gowns, and laughter, can erase the brutal, painful history of the plantation itself.”
Despite more wedding industry professionals raising red flags about plantation weddings, some still prefer not to rock the boat and to largely let the client make the decision. “Yeah, we would have the conversation about it,” Danielle Voight, creative director and lead planner at Design Studio South in Savannah, says when asked what happens if one of her clients requests a plantation venue. “That’s a tough question. I probably really have to think about the clients and the situation and the full history of the plantation before I made that decision.” She adds that she doesn’t see plantation weddings going away anytime soon, but thinks that in the future, people “will be more mindful of it, and I think it will be a slower choice.”
For many people, however, there are no grey areas in this conversation. “Why are plantation weddings fucking disgusting?” asked TikToker @dame.next.door. “Top line, plantations are sites of human torture and enslavement. That’s not romantic.” She shared recently that she had found a marriage record from her emancipated fourth great-grandparents showing that they had “cohabitated as man and wife” from 1845 to 1866 and had to wait 21 years to get married, as the legal protections of marriage were not available to enslaved people. That’s 21 years of not knowing if they would be separated against their will, or have their children taken away from them. “Consider that before you book Boone Hall for your wedding.”
*names have been changed for privacy of sources