Back in 2018, the wedding site Zola published an article titled “8 Unique Charlottesville Wedding Venues,” including The Jefferson Theater, Meriwether Springs Vineyard, and James Monroe’s Highland—one of Virginia’s most famous plantations.
But now Zola is one of several wedding planning websites that will no longer promote former slave plantations as wedding sites. While Zola and Brides plan to remove plantations from their venue lists entirely, The Knot and WeddingWire will still list them, but change the language they use in their descriptions, ensuring that it does not romanticize or glorify “a history that includes slavery.”
And Pinterest announced that it will limit the distribution of plantation wedding content by removing related words from search recommendations and auto-complete features and adding a content warning on plantation wedding-related searches. It will also stop accepting ads from those venues.
The changes come in response to a campaign by the civil rights group Color of Change, urging wedding industry leaders to change the way they market plantations as “charming” and “elegant” places for weddings.
“Plantations are physical reminders of one of the most horrific human rights abuses the world has ever seen,” the group wrote in a letter sent to Pinterest, Martha Stewart Weddings, Zola, Brides, The Knot, and WeddingWire in October. “The wedding industry routinely denies the violent conditions Black people faced under chattel slavery by promoting plantations as romantic places to marry.”
Here in Charlottesville, which has a booming wedding industry and multiple area venues with a history of slavery, the controversy hits close to home.
Some sites, like The Inn at Meander Plantation in Locust Dale, make no mention of slavery on their websites, describing their grounds as the “ideal location for your dream Virginia wedding.” Others, like James Monroe’s Highland and Prospect Hill Plantation Inn, detail their history of slavery on their websites, but still portray themselves as a “charming, historic backdrop for your special day” and the “perfect Charlottesville wedding venue.”
However, the changes made by wedding planning websites—as well as Charlottesville’s recent grappling with its history of racism and oppression—could lead such wedding venues to take a second look at their language and practices.
Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of James Monroe’s Highland, agrees that venues with a history of slavery should be mindful of their language and not glorify “the very real experience of plantations as landscapes of trauma.”
Though the controversy surrounding plantation weddings hasn’t been an issue with clients, she says, James Monroe’s Highland is currently having an “internal conversation” about its wedding policies.
“Highland, like all historic sites, exists in a changing world,” Bon-Harper says. “Because of the current discourse, we are looking not only at our language but our practice. We will also look at the appropriateness of having those uses of our property, and what are the best uses of our property that reflect our commitment to fully examining history in an authentic way.”
“We are not at all interested in whitewashing,” she adds.
It’s possible places like Highland will follow in the footsteps of Monticello, which does not allow private, non-educational events on its “historic core,” where enslaved people lived and worked. Instead, weddings are held at Montalto, a separate property overlooking Monticello, but still a part of Jefferson’s historic landholdings.
“We know that enslaved people worked on that mountaintop, but we don’t believe it was a site where [they] lived,” says Niya Bates, director of African-American history at Monticello.
Weddings are also “not a huge part of what we do,” says Bates. But the historic property’s efforts to honestly address its complicated history—especially as a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience—might provide a model for other former plantations.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on interpreting the power of slaves here at Monticello, and that means recognizing that this place is a contested landscape. It is a former plantation, but it’s also a tourist attraction,” says Bates. “We have to balance those two things.”
Some members of the local wedding industry are also glad the discussion surrounding plantation weddings is coming to the forefront. Though her clients have never brought up the issue, Mia Crump, owner of Little Acorn Events, says she has discussed it with other wedding vendors who she thinks “share the opinion that [history] should be acknowledged and not looked at so idyllically.”
The new guidelines could affect the local wedding industry “in terms of people being more aware of the choices that they’re making,” Crump says, and she sees the changes as positive and necessary, as we “question the parts of our history that we as a society have glorified.”
Ultimately, it’s important that “we do teach about the ugly and tragic parts of our history, so that we can be sure to move forward into a lighter era,” she says.
Prospect Hill Plantation Inn and The Inn at Meander Plantation did not respond to requests for comment.