Restaurant names such as Plantation, Old/Ole Plantation, and Southern Plantation leave me wondering why. Why adopt a name that references slavery and is offensive to a lot of people, particularly if they are Black?
Plantation names are similar to ones such as Sambo’s, Mammy’s Kitchen, or those with the initials KKK. Maybe not all who have chosen such names intended to insult anyone, but were unaware of their resonance. But, really, how much reflection does it take to realize that such names carry deeply negative historical associations?
Isn’t it just plain bad business to have an offensive name? Evidently the Disney company thought so. They tried hard to create a fictitious, slavery-free history of their Louisiana resort Dixie Landings by avoiding the name plantation. Eventually they shed “Dixie Landings” as well, becoming Port Orleans Riverside. Of course, white-washing history is controversial in its own right, but clearly Disney recognized that “plantation” held liabilities.
Ostensibly, restaurants named Plantation were meant to convey gracious Southern hospitality. But, again, the question is for whom? If your ancestors were enslaved and forced to do hard labor for white people who lived graciously off their profits, would you be charmed by this concept?
Although it might be assumed that most Plantation Restaurants were in the South, this is not the case. Since the early 20th century, and especially after World War II, they have appeared in Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, Connecticut, and other northern, western, and midwestern states. In the 1920s and 1930s the Seattle WA environs were fertile ground for restaurants with racially offensive names. In addition to The Plantation, there was Mammy’s Shack, Henry the Watermelon King, Coon Chicken Inn, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Why would anyone choose the name Plantation? Perhaps because they had access to a building that looked like a Southern manor house, so it seemed “natural’ to name it that. But then, how to explain restaurants that had no magnolias, no romance whatsoever and looked more like roadhouses than elegant mansions [above, Auburn IN].
Others added “columns” in a not-very-convincing attempt to mimic a plantation mansion.
And then there were the Plantation Restaurants that exhibited confused identities not expressive of their name with respect either to cuisine or ambiance. What were patrons to make of New York City’s Old Plantation on West 47th in the 1920s with its Mexican dishes? The Old Plantation Restaurant near Lawton OK served bratwurst and schnitzel in the 1960s. Nor is there anything about pancakes or a vaguely early American exterior that would seem to suggest the name Pancake Plantation. Equally odd, Charleston’s 1970s Plantation Restaurant was decorated with wagon wheel light fixtures and red tablecloths.
It seems more likely that the popularity of the name can be explained by large numbers of white people who actually loved the “moonlight and magnolias” aura that surrounds plantations. Many advertised for banquet trade, and may have wanted to attract wedding parties. Even today many white women reportedly associate plantations primarily with romance as portrayed in the film Gone With the Wind.
When – and if – proprietors were informed that quite a few Americans were offended by such a name, how would they respond? The answer is not on record. But having received many comments to this effect on other race-related posts, I can imagine many would reply: it was long ago, don’t be so negative, get over it.
There are still quite a few restaurants named Plantation in business today. I’d say it’s way past time to reject that as a name.
© Jan Whitaker, 2020