Second in the series of posts, inspired by a family holiday travelling through the southern states of the USA.
While we were in Charleston, SC, the first city we visited on our trip, we met up with an old friend of mine, Mikey, a player who was born and raised in Charleston and who I'd met and coached in American Football when he spent a year studying abroad in Edinburgh over a decade ago. He took us on a tour around the city which started at lunchtime and lasted well into the evening as we learned all about the history of Charleston and reminisced about the season where I was his Offensive Co-Ordinator and he was my Quarterback.
When we decided to visit the south, there were many reasons, but the primary ones were to watch some college American Football games and to visit some of the places that we'd heard, read and learned about. For Cathryn, my wife, who has has long been a fan of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, that meant a chance to experience the landscape of the novel and trying to better understand the time period in which it was set. For those unfamiliar with the story, it takes place as America breaks out into Civil War in the 1860s, when seven states in the South decide to secede from the rest of the United States. There were a number of reasons for this decision, but chief among them was a desire to continue with the practice of slavery which at the time was driving the economy of those states. The main character, Scarlett O'Hara, is the daughter of a wealthy Irish immigrant who owns a plantation in Georgia, where slaves grow and harvest cotton. Such plantations were common during this period in the South and a number have been maintained and turned into historical sites and tourist attractions. On speaking to Mikey, we realised there were some nearby, so we took the opportunity to visit one, called Boone Hall in Mount Pleasant.
We walked the grounds, read the information boards and started to get a feel for the things which had gone on there. The plantation house itself had been modified significantly since the era and wasn't especially grand, but the road entrance features a stunning avenue of Oaks, almost a mile long, with 280 year old trees draped with Spanish moss. Once you pass these beautiful trees, however, you come to the Slave Cabins which had ones housed the slaves. These cabins are small (12x30 feet) and cramped and had each held far more slaves at a time than would have been safe or comfortable. Videos and displays within them brought the era to life and standing within their walls gave an uneasy feeling. The plantation had been famous for using this slave labour to produce bricks - as many as 4 million a year, which had been used to build many of the significant buildings in Charleston. Many of the bricks that make up these buildings (which were also often constructed using slave labour) still show the fingerprints of the slaves - a stark reminder of how the world was during the time of their construction.
Another significant building on the complex is a large wooden shed, called the Cotton Dock, situated on the tidal marsh on the outskirts of the property. During the plantation's most productive era, road travel was far less well advanced than water travel and so the transport of goods and people into and out of the plantation would typically have taken place by boat. This building was effectively a storehouse for the people and goods that came into and out of Boone Hall on those boats. The Cotton Dock (which was not original, having been rebuilt after being destroyed by a storm some years ago) was quite busy compared to the rest of the complex, with couples and small groups chatting and taking photos This seemed odd, given that it was effectively a large shed, however it's setting on the water was beautiful, particularly in the evening with the sun coming down. Then I overheard a couple chatting and realised why this was such a popular part of the complex - the Cotton Dock is a wedding venue!
When I realised why these people were there, I felt immediately uneasy. Beautiful old buildings, country mansions and stately homes with stunning gardens are of course very popular wedding venues and there is no doubt that Boone Hall is aesthetically pleasing and would be a great place to get some beautiful wedding photos by the water, but there's no escaping the fact that it's a plantation built and paid for by slavery. Get married here and your guests are dining literally a hundred yards from the slave cabins!
We left after finishing the tour and Mikey drove us back into Charleston and without my saying anything, Cathryn voiced exactly what I'd been thinking. Surely people must feel uneasy about celebrating the happiest day of their lives at a venue built on human suffering? How on earth is getting married there an option? We were both shocked at the juxtaposition between happy young couples taking selfies in the Cotton Dock and the stories of slaves who lived and died there.
Our conversation went one for quite some time without conclusion, but it stayed on my mind as the days passed, I broadened my thinking. What about stately homes in the UK (where we've attended weddings in the past) which were paid for by the proceeds of slavery funnelled back to Britain? There are thousands of those. Is getting married there any better? Just because the slaves were usually on the other side of the world rather than being kept on the grounds, it doesn't change the fact that their misery provided the source of funds to build them. Weeks later and I still don't know how to think about it all. Turning these places into museum sites seems like a great way to educate people about the horrors which took place so that we can strive to avoid the mistakes of the past, but isn't that negated when the venue is glorified in the way using it as a wedding venue does?
I discovered this evening while writing this post that Hollywood A-listers Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively not only got married at a plantation in 2012, they got married at Boone Hall! Their wedding has, in the years since, been a source of some controversy for this very reason and Reynolds has spoken out a number of times about how much he regrets that decision, having found the venue on Pinterest and picked it for its appearance. Public sentiment has changed on a lot of subjects over the past decade and this seems to be one such topic.
So what becomes of places like Boone Hall? Can a building, in educating generations of people about the wrongs that took place there, be repurposed and redeemed? Is that even a thing, or am I anthropomorphising bricks and mortar? Ultimately the value of anything is the value which we assign to it. How do we decide when enough time has past or enough good has been done to offset the evil? I'd love to hear your thoughts.