Is the Word 'Plantation' Racist?

Student protesters are demanding that the Cornell Plantations' name be changed by the university.

February 22, 2016
Chris Waits

In an 1862 letter, Andrew Dickson White, Cornell University’s first president, described his idea of a great university: “It must have the best of Libraries -- collections in different departments -- Laboratory -- Observatory -- Botanical Garden perhaps …”

The university's gardens were created over 70 years later, and they were called the Cornell Plantations. Today the Plantations contain a botanical garden, an arboretum, and a network of nature preserves. But the name, opponents argue, evokes the language of slavery.

The debate started to pick up last fall, as protests over racial inequality flared on campuses across the country. And when Cornell protesters turned in a list of demands, the gardens made an appearance in section four: “We want the administration to change the name of the Cornell Plantations as soon as possible.”

Now, Cornell’s Black Students United group is promising more protests. But while the group is generally disappointed with the university’s response to their demands, the name change is still on the table.

“There is one key element that all botanic gardens have in common: celebrating, displaying and studying the rich diversity of the world’s plants,” Christopher Dunn, director of Cornell Plantations, wrote in The Cornell Daily Sun. “Yet to be truly effective, this celebration of natural diversity must also embrace human diversity.”

Soon, he said, the Plantations will be rebranding.

Cornell has not announced whether it has decided to change the name, and neither Dunn nor the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences responded to requests for comment in time for this article's deadline. But either way, the university hopes to address concerns about the name and its implications.

“Our staff and Advisory Council have been considering all aspects of our identity, our name, our mission and how our identity can best reflect what Cornell Plantations is -- and does,” Dunn wrote.

The Language of Slavery

The Cornell students’ demand fits with other high-profile protests earlier this fall: at Harvard, Yale and Princeton Universities, student protesters asked that their universities stop using the word “master” to describe heads of residential colleges. The term has been used in academic settings since medieval times, Princeton professors said, but it seems anachronistic today. Princeton and Harvard have since abandoned the term, while Yale has yet to make a decision.

These are all protests concerning the legacy of slavery, but unlike requests that a college distance itself from people tied to slavery -- like Thomas Jefferson -- these protests focus on slavery’s language.

The result is a linguist’s challenge. In the end, the debate comes down to nitty-gritty questions of usage and etymology: how specific words are used, where they come from and what they’ve come to mean.

The word “plantation” ultimately comes from the Latin plantātiōnem, according to Patricia O’Conner, author of five books on the English language, former New York Times Book Review editor and co-writer of this extensive blog post on the linguistic underpinnings of Cornell’s situation.

When it appeared in English, the word had two broad meanings: the establishment of an institution or colony, and the planting of seeds in the ground. But now, in modern usage, the word can be used pejoratively.

“We got the term ‘plantation politics’ in the 1960s, the term ‘plantation mentality’ in the 1930s,” O'Conner said in an interview. “Considering all the evidence, it’s probably true that more Americans associate the word ‘plantation’ with its slave past than with its purely horticultural meaning.”

It’s a loaded word, she said, and the complaints are justified. But in an examination of the controversy over the word “master,” O’Conner and her husband -- the two co-write the blog -- found that the word’s meanings are broad, and in modern usage, it isn’t connected to slavery in the same way as “plantation.”

“We concluded in that case,” she said, “that the complaints weren’t that justified.”

The Plantation Myth

In the past, Cornell’s defense of the name rested on what it was originally intended to convey.

The horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey named the Cornell Plantations in 1944, and according to a profile in the Plantations’ magazine, he had nothing but good intentions: “He purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word, plantations: ‘areas under cultivation’ or ‘newly established settlements.’”

“One of the founders of Cornell Plantations was essentially trying to reclaim the word from the plantation myth,” said Edward E. Baptist, a history professor at Cornell. “But it’s not really possible to do that.”

The plantation myth is the idea that the relationship between masters and slaves was personal, rather than economic or violent. It started in the 1930s with the emergence of the plantation novel, and it peaked with Gone With the Wind.

As a result, we’ve grown to think of plantations as almost idyllic. “Google ‘plantation weddings,’” Baptist said. “You’ll see how much some people want to hold onto this myth that is explicitly connected to slave plantations.”

A.T. Miller, Cornell’s associate vice provost for academic diversity, said that the name change has been in the works for two years, and that the unit might be called the Botanical Gardens. But nothing has been finalized yet; the new name could change during the rebranding process, or as a result of a naming gift.

“We have had prominent guests be offended by being invited there, as well as students and their families,” Miller said in an email. “It has been an unnecessary deterrent to participation in a spectacular world-class plant collection and outdoor resource.”

But online, many were skeptical of the push to change the name, arguing that opponents were overreacting.

“The builders of the Plantations were interested in creating sustainable and diverse flora at Cornell that mirrors the diverse world that many of the most substantial donors and supporters hoped for in the future,” wrote a commenter on a Cornell Daily Sun story.

“Who sees the word ‘plantation’ and becomes so distressed they can no longer operate on campus?” wrote another.

For Baptist, it’s an issue of misrepresentation; even if Cornell was trying to reclaim the word from the plantation myth, it ends up doing the opposite. He doesn’t use the term in his classes, and he wishes Cornell didn’t use it in its gardens.



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