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“Plantation” in Our History, But Not in Our Name

African American history

Have you ever had a question asked of you that made you come to a screeching halt? That’s what happened when the National Trust asked, “Is your site a plantation?” The reason for the question, they explained, was their goal to be consistent with names and titles, to be historically accurate, and to encourage a welcoming visitor experience.  


After some consideration, the sites that responded (including Drayton Hall) were unanimous in their belief that the term “plantation” should be used as a descriptor and not as a label.


The rationale behind that thinking is obvious: despite the progress that has been made, and the move toward a more dispassionate discussion of slavery and its legacy, National Trust sites that were formerly plantations regularly encounter visitors who have strong emotional reactions on both sides. At the same time, we have all seen the power of interpretive programs in countering those reactions – by openly acknowledging and discussing how the site operated as a plantation, what that meant, and how that has changed over time.


That’s why when Drayton Hall uses the term “plantation,” we use it as descriptive text throughout our interpretive and marketing materials. Interpretive programs describe Drayton Hall as an active rice plantation that relied on enslaved workers for its profitability up until the time of the Civil War. Visitors and students will come to realize that the voices of the enslaved still resonate here, and that the community of families that lived and labored at Drayton Hall are not forgotten. Also, our marketing campaign positions Drayton Hall as “the oldest preserved plantation house in America that is open to the public” – an authenticity that is fundamental to our story.


So, while we don’t hide the fact that Drayton Hall was once a plantation, we also can’t ignore that the word can be viewed as a loaded term. When it’s connected directly with the site’s name – as in “Drayton Hall Plantation” – it can raise false expectations on the part of our visitors regarding their on-site experience – including the romanticized “Moonlight & Magnolias” imagery of the Old South, which is definitely not what Drayton Hall is about!


So, in answer to the earlier question (and in case you were wondering), we are always “Drayton Hall” and never “Drayton Hall Plantation.”


What do you think?  What images come to mind when you hear or read the word “plantation”?  How do you feel about it or our approach?  Please share your thoughts with us. 


You can read more about the responses from other sites on the National Trust Historic Sites blog.