Popular vacation rental company Airbnb is under fire after a TikTok video slamming a Mississippi property described as a “slave cabin” went viral.
The estate at the center of the controversy is the Panther Burn Cottage, a small cottage in Greenville, Mississippi. The description stated the building once served as a slave quarters. The posting also claimed it was used as a sharecropper cabin and later, a medical office.
Wynton Yates, a civil rights attorney, posted the video on July 28. Screenshots of the property showed 68 reviews and an overall 4.97 rating. He highlighted how people who had stayed at the property used words like “historic,” “elegant,” “delightful” and “cool” to describe it.
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Many social media users were appalled that the location could be rented as a bed and breakfast. The accommodation has since been taken down from Airbnb’s website and an apology has been issued.
But the location was never a slave cabin.
Yates shares with ESSENCE that the property’s new owner, a man named Brad Hauser, contacted him at the start of August. He says Hauser revealed to him that the small wooden cottage was never actually a slave cabin and not part of any plantation.
Hauser also strongly opposed the decision of the previous owner to market the property as a place that once housed formerly enslaved people.
According to Yates, Hauser also explained the building’s original owner said it was used as a doctor’s office and was not old enough to have housed slaves.
“How is this ok?,” Yates asks. “Someone intentionally marketed a vacation rental as a former slave cabin because they felt slavery was a good selling point.”
Brad Hauser did not respond to ESSENCE’s request for comment.
“To use slavery as a selling point is not only gross and dismissive of a horrible history in this this country,” Yates says. “It’s also the continued profiting from slavery.”
The controversy raises a larger conversation on the commodification of Black trauma and its role in the U.S. travel and tourism industry.
Tourism Reset is a research initiative working to challenge inequality in tourism. The project’s co-directors, Dr. Alana Dillette and Dr. Stephanie Benjamin, say slavery being used as a marketing tactic is indicative of the industry.
“The fact that someone realized that that they could use [slavery] and people would want to come also says more about where we are in this space in 2022, that it is something that actually attracts somebody to a place,” Dr. Dillette tells ESSENCE.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t really anything new,” Dr. Benjamin, who is white, says. “There’s long been a romanticization of this time in the American past.”
Plantations have become a popular location for couples to be married at. Yet these sprawling estates with mansions cannot be separated from their history of violence and brutality. They are relics of slavery, not the backdrop for a party.
The Boone Plantation in South Carolina was where celebrity couple Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were married in 2012. The couple faced major criticism after details of their wedding resurfaced online in 2018. Reynolds would later tell Fast Company that they learned from their mistake, issued a public apology and donated over one million dollars each to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
That wasn’t the last time plantations were used as a prop for celebration. In fact, another infamous instance saw one person actually wanting to bring people in to recreate the feel of slavery.
In 2013, celebrity chef Paula Deen was lambasted after admitting she wanted to enlist Black men to portray slaves at a wedding she was planning. She said she got the idea from a restaurant she and her husband dined at in the South.
“The whole entire waiter staff was middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie,” said Deen during a videotaped deposition. “I mean, it was really impressive. That restaurant represented a certain era in America …after the Civil War, during the Civil War, before the Civil War … It was not only Black men, but it was also Black women … I would say they were slaves,” she said.
In 2019, Color of Change, a civil rights advocacy group, lobbied The Knot Worldwide, Zola, Pinterest, and other wedding planning websites to stop promoting and romanticizing plantations as wedding venues.
“Marketing plantations as ‘classic’ or ‘timeless’ places to celebrate a big day communicates a clear message to your Black clients and readers: that their suffering is something to be celebrated, if not completely erased. Plantations are former forced labor camps that brutalized and murdered millions of Black people in this country— they are not party spaces, ” read the petition on organization’s website.
As a result, Pinterest and The Knot Worldwide and other companies ceased the promotion of wedding venues and content that glamourized former plantations. The organizations behind the change also worked on new guidelines to ensure that wedding vendors do not use language on their websites that washes over Southern plantation history.
Dr. Dillette and Dr. Benjamin believe organizations in the tourism industry, like Airbnb, need a thorough research process. The insight will prevent users from being able to capitalize on Black Americans’ trauma.
“We have to…amplify these stories and when this stuff happens, like in this case, call people out. But more importantly, like with Airbnb, they took the listing down. Good. That’s step one,” Dr. Dillette says.
Yates believes the discourse that came from this incident was necessary. “It’s not just going out on a crusade to take down these posts,” said Yates. “It’s about having the conversations of not allowing the history and experience of slavery to be to continue to be whitewashed in this country,” Yates says.