The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Portraying plantations as luxury real estate downplays the legacy of slavery

Real estate coverage in the media is important for shaping how we understand history

Boone Hall Plantation in Charleston, S.C. (iStock)

Earlier this year, the Vanderhorst family home on Kiawah Island, S.C., was on the market for $21 million, the largest amount ever asked for a “plantation” site in state history. But from South Carolina’s de facto paper of record, the Post and Courier, readers would glean no sense of the property’s real history. The paper ran a feature that celebrated Vanderhorst family history, their wealth and the property’s beauty, but made no reference to the enslaved workers who constructed the house for Arnoldus Vanderhorst and whose labor built the Vanderhorst family’s fortune.

While a subsequent, unacknowledged edit to the piece mentioned an enslaved woman with whom Vanderhorst fathered two children, the paper neglected to name her. But her name, Hagar Richardson, as well as the stories of others who were enslaved on such properties, matter deeply. And their erasure and minimization from the stories that are told about plantations and their afterlives are part of a troubling pattern.

It’s not just the Vanderhorst home. In the last month alone, the Post and Courier published whitewashed pieces on two other plantation properties: Middleburg in September, in which slavery was not acknowledged; and Bonny Hall in October, which mentioned “enslaved labor” only briefly. (The Post and Courier did not respond to a request for comment.)

Other publications have marketed former plantations as part of a booming real estate niche, depicting the properties as luxurious and steeped in the history of the wealthy White families who once owned them — while ignoring the role that slavery and its violence played in building that largesse and sustaining those sites.

Enslaved Africans and African Americans experienced plantation sites as forced labor camps rather than luxury escapes. Their labor and lives undergirded the opulence that attracts buyers today, and therefore their primacy in the story of these sites must be, at the very least, acknowledged. These properties have deep and meaningful histories that are too often overshadowed by marketing that only highlights their aesthetic features and lineage of White ownership.

Plantation slavery in the Lowcountry, South Carolina’s coastal area, first emerged in the late 1600s as English colonizers stole the territory of Native peoples like the Etiwan, Kiawah and others, whose names still mark locations in the region. By the mid-1700s, enslaved workers of African descent cultivated crops such as rice, sea island cotton and indigo. In 1770, the 80,000 enslaved Africans then living in the colony had made their enslavers among the richest men in Colonial North America. For enslaved people, though, child mortality was high, and life expectancy low due to the pace and danger of their work.

After the United States gained independence, White Lowcountry families, including the Vanderhorsts, continued to prosper on the backs of enslaved workers. On Vanderhorst family land on Kiawah Island, a peak population of more than 100 enslaved people grew indigo and later sea island cotton as cash crops, produced provisions and tended poultry, cows and hogs — all while the Vanderhorsts enjoyed the newly constructed mansion, two apartment buildings and a fine villa in downtown Charleston, built by enslaved people and some free laborers. At Middleburg on the Cooper River and Bonny Hall on the Combahee, enslaved people developed a massive network of rice fields alongside tidal rivers, drawing upon expertise from their West African roots in rice agriculture.

While enslaved workers engaged in many forms of resistance, sometimes they turned to outright rebellion. For example, White authorities accused Bram, John and Richard, three enslaved men who worked for Jonathan Lucas, the owner of Middleburg, of participating in the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy. This was a plan among some of Charleston’s Black community to free themselves, through violence if necessary, and seek freedom in Haiti. White city leaders thwarted the plan in 1822, however, executing 35 would-be rebels and sending 37 more to certain death on Cuban sugar plantations. Lucas responded by changing the layout of Middleburg to discourage rebellion.

Following the 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln, the White elite of South Carolina voted to secede from the United States to preserve “the right of property in slaves,” launching the Civil War.

Enslaved people were central to the U.S. military’s effort during the war within a stone’s throw of Middleburg, Bonny Hall and Kiawah. For example, Harriet Tubman led 150 Black U.S. soldiers of the 2nd South Carolina Volunteers on a raid down the Combahee River in 1863, where Bonny Hall is located, to free hundreds of enslaved rice workers.

After the Civil War, African Americans in the Lowcountry embraced emancipation as more than just freedom from slavery; they built community institutions and participated in public political life. They also advocated for their labor rights, often negotiating with former enslavers over labor and tenancy contracts. At Bonny Hall in 1876, formerly enslaved rice workers helped lead a strike for higher pay that spread across the region, part of the Combahee River rice strikes.

On Kiawah Island after the war, Quash Stevens, the unrecognized, formerly enslaved son of Elias Vanderhorst (Arnoldus’s offspring) and an enslaved woman whose name was not recorded, managed the property. There, about a dozen Black families farmed until Stevens’s White relatives, through neglect and disrespect, caused him to settle on nearby Johns Island with his own family in the early 1900s.

Amid Reconstruction, South Carolina’s White elite resorted to violence and fraud to retake power, as during the 1876 gubernatorial election. Soon they cemented White rule in the state’s 1895 Constitution that instituted Jim Crow-style restrictions on the state’s Black majority. These political actions coalesced with the advent of “Lost Cause” mythology, which aimed to rewrite history to downplay the role of slavery and its preservation in the Civil War, while upholding ideas of white superiority. Through the middle of the 20th century, propaganda, like the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind,” recast Southern plantations as places of leisure for White elites and offered a romanticized version of slavery.

By the turn of the 20th century, wealthy White Northerners acquired some Southern plantations to convert them into sporting retreats, further divorcing these properties from their brutal origins and entrenching the idyllic myth into mainstream cultural perceptions. Meanwhile, the mythology drowned out the stories of Black activism and resilience on the same sites.

In recent years, communities around the United States have begun to reckon with this mythology and how to remember the past with honesty. Charleston is one of many cities wrestling with this tension. Last year, the city’s towering Calhoun Monument was lowered from its pedestal. The International African American Museum will soon open. The Post and Courier launched a new series on Black history in South Carolina. Such steps recognize what Black activists and scholars have been saying for generations: white supremacy, the Confederacy and enslavers are not owed celebration.

Plantations are under scrutiny, too. A recent article in The Washington Post highlighted how plantations are increasingly important sites for Black Americans to explore familial connections and history. The focus on the lives of the enslaved and their descendants on these plantations, like the Whitney Plantation Museum, provides an important counternarrative to well-established plantation tourism tropes.

However, Lost Cause mythology persists in how plantations are marketed and sold, and profiteers still carefully avoid Black history. This isn’t just about how plantation sites are presented in debates about history; we must also grapple with how properties connected to the profits of slavery are maintained, marketed and commodified in the Lowcountry today, and who benefits.

While protecting historical spaces and rural land from overdevelopment are worthy goals, there is a bitter irony in the protection afforded sprawling plantation estates while Black communities in the same region are repeatedly lost to heirs’ property sales, highway expansions and development.

Acknowledgment is the first step toward this overdue reckoning. Recognizing that the majority of Black Americans in the Lowcountry are direct descendants of people who were enslaved by White families, some of whom command a disproportionate influence in Charleston today, would be a start. Remembering with honesty their ancestors’ stories, and the full truth about the places where they suffered is important — no less because there are direct ties between the injustices we recognize from the past and the present-day wrongs still to be made right. As our country reevaluates the people in our past whom we should no longer venerate, South Carolina and Charleston’s real estate media coverage is a microcosm for why we need to also reexamine how our culture exalts slavery’s spaces.