In June, about a thousand people gathered for a justice rally in Hilton Head, a South Carolina vacation hotspot known for its resorts and golf courses. The event included condemnations of police brutality and calls for whites to join the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the speakers, historian Amir Jamal Touré, also chided people who live in neighborhoods with the word “plantation” in their names — communities such as Wexford Plantation and Palmetto Hall Plantation.
“It is shameful and hypocritical for you to say that you believe in black lives mattering,” Touré told the crowd. This wasn’t a new argument. Touré has been criticizing plantation neighborhoods since the 1990s.
But he wasn’t expecting the response that followed. An editorial in the next day’s Hilton Head Island Packet newspaper agreed that citizens should “scrub ‘plantation’ from our communities, once and for all.” Over the next week, more than 5,000 people signed an online petition demanding an end to plantation developments in South Carolina’s Beaufort County.
In recent years, even as activists have decried Confederate monuments and flags, developers have continued using “plantation” in neighborhood names to evoke elegance. But now plantation place names and the word itself are under new scrutiny.
Rhode Island’s governor recently signed an order changing the state’s name from “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to “Rhode Island” on state websites and documents. In Boise, Idaho, the owners of Plantation Country Club say they’ll change its name to reflect their vision of a club that’s inclusive and welcoming to all. Sienna Plantation, a massive planned community outside Houston, recently shortened its name to Sienna, removing “language that could be hurtful to others,” according to its website.
And in Hilton Head, white residents in several affluent gated communities have launched efforts to excise the word “plantation” from their names. “It’s a pretend, benign interpretation of a word that’s horrible,” said Pat Dowey, a Hilton Head Plantation resident who’s helping lead a push to rename her neighborhood. Dowey has disliked the plantation name ever since moving from Kansas City 10 years ago, but she says it was George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, followed by speakers at Hilton Head’s justice rally, that finally prompted her to act.
Plantation communities exist in much of America, though they’re most common in the South. There’s Providence Plantation in Charlotte, Cane Bay Plantation in Charleston, Plantation Springs in Knoxville. Louisville’s Plantation neighborhood includes a Rhett Butler Drive. Some are built on former plantation land, but developers often choose the name for what they see as its pleasant associations.
In Hilton Head and other vacation spots along the southern Atlantic coast, the word has also become a synonym for a large residential development. Doug Terhune, owner of Carolina Plantations Real Estate on North Carolina’s coast, says a plantation is simply a planned development laden with amenities. “People here in the South don’t consider any plantation linked in any form or fashion to slavery,” he said.
During a tour of St. James Plantation in North Carolina’s Brunswick County, he gestured toward a doubles tennis match. “That right there is life in a plantation,” he said.
The trope of the romantic, genteel Southern plantation runs deep in American history. It was first hatched in popular 19th-century novels that “sanitized the racial violence inherent in slavery, making it appear as though it was a benign institution,” said UNC Charlotte historian Karen Cox, author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.” Northerners also promoted this image through songs and movies, notably “Gone With the Wind,” which has had nine U.S. rereleases since its 1939 premiere.
In the 1950s, as the post-World War II housing market boomed, a developer named Charles Fraser launched what became the grandfather of planned resort communities — Hilton Head’s 5,200-acre Sea Pines Plantation. For white Northern visitors, the name conjured Southern elegance and charm.
But long before Hilton Head’s resorts arrived, the island had been home to cotton, indigo and rice plantations that relied on slave labor. The enslaved black people who worked these plantations made up most of the island’s residents. These people, of African descent, developed a culture known as Gullah Geechee, rich in African traditions. Descendants, such as Emory Campbell, live in the area today.
Campbell, a 78-year-old community leader, was a teenager when Fraser began building Sea Pines. It was followed by Port Royal Plantation, Palmetto Hall Plantation, “and on and on and on,” Campbell said. Black residents “resented that term because we knew what plantation meant historically.”
In recent years, some places, including Sea Pines, have dropped the word from their names. Yet it’s still used widely. Sea Pines Resort, for instance, is home to Plantation Golf Club. A tourist information website, hiltonhead.com, explains: “Much of Hilton Head is segmented into gated communities, also known as plantations.” And while Port Royal dropped the word from its newsletters and legal documents, “plantation” remains part of the legal name, says Risa Sreden Prince, a neighborhood board member working to change it.
Prince recalls that she “kind of choked” using the word “plantation” when she retired to Hilton Head four years ago from Ohio. “But there were lots of communities here called plantation. In my Northern naivete, I didn’t think much about it.”
After she attended Hilton Head’s justice rally, she decided to act. “While changing a word isn’t going to fix behavior, it certainly will move us closer to understanding each other and demonstrating respect for our neighbors,” she said.
Other white attendees felt similar resolve. “It’s not okay anymore. It was never okay,” said Rebecca Mastrorocco, who lives in the Palmetto Hall Plantation neighborhood. Already, she has taken the name-change issue to the board of Palmetto Hall’s property owners association, which is putting it to a vote. Ballots are due back in July.
These calls to remove plantation names have infuriated some residents. On the Hilton Head Plantation Facebook page, there are complaints that changes will be too costly and that dropping the word erases history. “If you don’t like the name,” one man wrote, “please consider New York.” Dissenters argue that a plantation is simply land where crops are planted.
But in the American South, plantations and slavery were inextricably bound. Historians typically define plantations as farms large enough to have at least 20 enslaved people.
“It was a prison camp from the beginning, but we didn’t want to admit that,” said historian Peter H. Wood, now retired from Duke University. Wood wrote in 1999 that plantations would more properly be called slave labor camps, a practice many historians now follow. “What is it about the psyche of a culture,” Wood asks, “that allows it to avoid the facts in front of its face?”
Jade Magnus Ogunnaike, campaign director for Color of Change, a nonprofit committed to uncovering the realities of slavery, suggests an answer. Romanticizing plantations helps white people forget about plantation slavery, she says, “because if we remember, we’ll have to discuss who was harmed, who committed the harm and who benefited from the harm.”
Dowey, who’s trying to persuade her neighbors to rename Hilton Head Plantation, thinks it’s time to acknowledge the harm. “It’s our Auschwitz,” she said.
Her group has launched a website, and it’s raising money to quell complaints about the cost of a name change. The task won’t be easy. There are more than 4,000 property owners in Hilton Head Plantation. Two-thirds must vote yes.
Of course, Dowey says, erasing the word “plantation” doesn’t cure systemic racism. But it’s something. “This is not a fix,” she said. “This is an offering.”
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