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No Longer A Selling Point, Some Residents Want 'Plantation' Removed

When Carol Casey moved from Ohio to South Carolina 27 years ago, she picked Hilton Head Plantation — a vast, 4,200-home development built on several former cotton plantations on Hilton Head Island. She says the word "plantation" made the property sound attractive and Southern.

But at a time when monuments to the Confederacy are coming down, other symbols of the old South are also being questioned, including the word plantation. By 1860, there were nearly 200 plantations in the coastal region of Beaufort County, S.C., that depended on slave labor. Housing developments now on those properties still use that word. And there's increasing interest in getting properties like Hilton Head Plantation to change their names.

Casey isn't on board. "You shouldn't change anything — it's there," she says. "Like, they shouldn't be tearing down monuments and defacing them."

At a recent March for Justice in Beaufort, marchers acknowledged the place of "plantation" in Southern history — but expressed that it was time for change.

"In a way, it's a landmark — almost a reminder of what we came from, but at the same time someone could take it in a disrespectful way," said Michael Lawton.

"If you want equal justice for all, it should be taken off," said Monique Eilets.

The notion of relaxed Southern living also drew Judy Dunning to Hilton Head Plantation. She says she just needed to find a house but she knew what the word meant. "A plantation was a place of hard labor and cruelty and when they started building Hilton Head Plantation — the resorts — they left all that part out and just said it was a beautiful graceful lifestyle," she says.

It was seeing the video of George's Floyd's death that led her to launch a petition to have the word removed from the community's name.

"You have to say to yourself: This is worse for the African Americans than we thought, and you have to come face to face with your own insensitivity to buying into stuff like that," Dunning says.

In the 1920s and '30s, wealthy Northern industrialists bought in by snatching up some of the old plantation properties and turning them into private hunting resorts. "Northerners who moved down here and bought the big hunting lodges for recreation were calling them plantations because they wanted to imitate the old South ..." explains Larry Roland, an emeritus professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. "A lot of these big industrialists in the North married these southern girls who were descendants of these planter families because they were pretty, fancy girls."

But it wasn't until the late 1950s that developers on Hilton Head Island began building upscale housing communities and started marketing them as plantations.

Isabella Miller is 16 and Gullah, people of a unique culture and language who were left on the Sea Islands after emancipation.

"This is a history of black people being beaten down," she says. "But look at it now: You have golf courses and fancy restaurants and the beach. So just come on and forget all that happened."

Miller wrote a letter to the local paper The Island Packet, that has generated some not-so-nice responses.

It feels sad that we have to feel unwelcome in a place that we've built.

"I think each of us has a different relationship to words," Miller says. "You know, if a white person goes into their neighborhood and uses plantation you might not think much of it — you know, who cares if it's called a plantation? But to the Black people around here, I have never heard my family say, 'It's just a word.' I've never heard my family say, 'It doesn't matter.' It feels sad that we have to feel unwelcome in a place that we've built."

On Hilton Head Island, Sea Pines Plantation became Sea Pines Resort more than 20 years ago. Wexford Plantation dropped the word earlier this summer and Palmetto Hall Plantation has mailed out ballots on a name change to its residents. Hilton Head Plantation's management did not respond to requests for an interview.

Katherine Kokal, Hilton Head Island reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 High Plains Public Radio