Like several generations of Buchanans before him, John Buchanan Jr. is becoming part of the history of Oatlands Plantation. Buchanan, 54, will become the first descendant of an Oatlands slave to be married on the property when Lauren Jones, 42, becomes his wife today.
"We see it as a triumph that we're able to be married there," Jones said. "We're able to come back to Oatlands with so much because they suffered."
Oatlands Plantation was a sprawling wheat field when George Carter inherited the land from his father and built a mansion on the property in 1804. The history of the 330-acre plantation and its restored buildings, well-manicured gardens and many events and tours draw thousands of visitors each year.
Research conducted by Oatlands and the Buchanan family shows that Buchanan's great-great-great-grandparents, Andrew and Fannie Buchanan, worked the land before the mansion was built and that Buchanan's great-grandfather, Martin Van Buren Buchanan, was a slave on the property before the Civil War. Carter owned as many as 128 slaves, the largest holding in Loudoun County, according to the county census of 1860.
"Slaves were such a huge part of Oatlands," said Belinda Thomas, the plantation's director of education. "There were more African American families here than people related to the owners. This place wouldn't exist if it weren't for slavery. The slaves built Oatlands."
Documents indicate that Martin Buchanan left the plantation to enlist in the war, joining the Union Second Colored Infantry. Carter's two sons, meanwhile, were couriers for the Confederacy. The Carters also turned over their home for 10 days to Confederate Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans to use for his headquarters.
Records kept at Oatlands show that 70 slaves returned to the plantation as free men and women, including Martin Buchanan, who worked as a gardener. He may have planted some of the boxwood trees that outline the hourglass section of the garden, where his great-grandson and Jones will hold their wedding ceremony.
Initially, John Buchanan was extremely reluctant to get married at a place associated with slavery. He had been to Oatlands for two family reunions but remained on the grounds, under a tent, far from the mansion.
"It was really emotional. It really affected me. The first time I went out there, I didn't want to leave the parking lot," Buchanan said. "Hearing stories of the rich owners and the people who had slaves there -- it's difficult. I wasn't really comfortable until Lauren and I took the tour there."
Jones had originally wanted to get married at the Tennessee farm of "Roots" author Alex Haley. She had worked there for several summers for the Children's Defense Fund. When Buchanan saw photos of the grounds, however, he immediately thought of Oatlands. Once Jones learned more about Buchanan's family history and toured the grounds, she could imagine no better place to wed.
"I had never been to a plantation and had never wanted to go to one," Jones said. "But I thought that given his family history, it made sense. I called to find out more about African American history there and saw that they were really going to welcome us."
Officials of Oatlands say they are enthusiastic about the wedding and the symbolism it brings.
"I think it's absolutely wonderful," said Joe Forcino, Oatlands's wedding coordinator. "I'm very sensitive to the subject. Every time I talk to them, I get chills. I'm very proud of them for doing this."
Although the couple chose not to include traditions from slave weddings in their ceremony, Jones's cousin will read a passage from "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself," in which Douglass praises God for granting him the strength of spirit that lifted him out of slavery.
Buchanan's cousin and family historian, Catrice Montgomery, will greet guests in traditional African wedding attire. Martin Buchanan will be honored in the couple's ceremony booklet.
Although a few family members have expressed concern about the location of the wedding, most have been supportive, Jones said.
"We knew people would ask, 'Why would a black person want to get married on a plantation?' " she said. "We knew it was going stir up feelings in people. We're reclaiming the land. Most people are in awe and really want to be a part of it -- renewing your history."
Jones said she thinks Oatlands was a relatively "comfortable" place for slaves, but there is evidence of some brutality in historic records, including the beating of a female slave who tried to escape.
Montgomery said there is evidence of a cordial relationship between the Buchanan servants at Oatlands and the Carter family, both in wills and in the diary of George Carter's wife, Elizabeth. In addition to the fact that Martin Buchanan returned to Oatlands as a free man, several generations of Buchanans continued to serve generations of Carters and the final owners of the land, the Eustis family.
John Buchanan's uncle, James, was a chauffeur for the Eustis family -- even after they moved to Washington -- until his death in 1972. The Eustis family bought Oatlands Plantation in 1903 and donated it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1965.
"I think it's a wonderful way, especially at Memorial Day, to celebrate our past and new beginnings as husband and wife," Montgomery said. "And, it's at a place where John's ancestors probably got married or were 'united' and built bonds that lasted."
Jones said that although she has less information about her own family history -- few records were kept on slave births, deaths and marriages -- she does know that one slave ancestor tried to run away from her owner in Richmond.
Jones, who grew up in Newton, Mass., with five sisters and two brothers, said she is happy to have been able to help Buchanan learn more of his past and hopes they can continue the discovery process together.
"I learned the history of my family in spite of myself," Buchanan said.