When Dharyl Auguste was 3 years old, he and his parents packed all of their belongings and left their home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to immigrate to the United States.
The family settled initially in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, before moving to nearby Sunrise. When it was time for Auguste to attend middle school, he and his parents relocated again, this time to Plantation, Florida. Auguste welcomed the move, he said, because it was easier for him to see his friends and access public transportation.
But something was not right in Plantation.
“It often came up as a topic between me and friends, and we all had the same feeling that it’s not a welcoming name,” Auguste, 27, said.
In the weeks since the George Floyd protests began, neighborhoods and subdivisions across the country have removed the word “plantation” from their names. In June, Rhode Island — known formally as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — announced that it would drop the second half of its official name from state documents and websites. (State lawmakers have introduced legislation that would put a name-change referendum on the ballot in November.)
Inspired by the social unrest spurred by the death of Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground by the neck for more than eight minutes, Auguste started a petition to change the name of Plantation.
“I was at home sitting in awe as our nation was going through a social awakening,” he said in an interview this past week. According to Auguste, images of toppled monuments to slaveholders and Confederate generals fueled him to take action. The petition he created June 7 has been signed more than 11,000 times.
Strictly speaking, the word “plantation” refers to a large group of plants or trees in a settlement. But the association with slavery is inescapable.
“We can’t ignore the image conjured by the word ‘plantation,’” Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island said last month. “We can’t ignore how painful that is for Black Rhode Islanders to see that and have to see that as part of their state’s name. It’s demoralizing. It’s a slap in the face. It’s painful.”
Gabriela Koster, who moved to Plantation, Florida, in 2006, agrees.
“I have been saying for 15 years that I do not think it’s an appropriate name for our city,” Koster said. “I don’t think it serves us well.”
Koster, 42, who raised her three children in Plantation, described the city as vibrant but said its name dulled some of the city’s luster.
But Lynn Stoner, the mayor of Plantation, does not necessarily share this opinion.
“If we change the name, it doesn’t change the mindset of what people indicate the problem is,” Stoner said. “I think it is just the optics.”
Stoner has lived in Plantation for 50 years, and she proposed instead that residents be educated on the “racial components and diversity in the community.”
“I’m more about the education piece,” Stoner said at a City Council meeting July 1, during which she also suggested that residents be taught about what should be considered offensive and why. “I feel like changing the name doesn’t change the philosophies — I think that’s where the bigger issue is.”
At the meeting, Stoner criticized an interview that Auguste had recently given on CNN, saying that “he didn’t do real well.” (She later apologized.) She also asked Auguste during the meeting whether she should use the term “African Americans” or “Blacks”; claimed that the first time she “ever really saw” Black people was when she moved to Plantation; and said that the last three people she had hired were not white.
She added that she was taught to treat everyone equally.
In response to Stoner’s comments, Auguste told the mayor that just because the city’s name represented the status quo it did not mean it should stay that way.
“I’m sure that was the same mentality when slavery was ended,” Auguste said. “We have to be more than not racist — we have to be anti-racist.”
Because the city of Plantation wasn’t incorporated until 1953, many — including Stoner — believe that its name is exempt from the correlation with slavery.
“This isn’t just about Black people,” the mayor said in an interview Tuesday. “It is about how Black people and people from other countries all relate to each other.”
Across the country, people are working to change the names of neighborhoods, developments and subdivisions that include the word “plantation.” In Hilton Head, South Carolina, efforts to change the names of gated communities and resorts are unequivocally about Black people. Beaufort County, which includes the island of Hilton Head, was founded in 1711. Before the Civil War, there were more than 20 plantations on the island where slave labor produced cotton, indigo, sugar cane, rice and other crops, according to the local government.
Today, Hilton Head is a resort town with developments and gated communities whose names often have the word “plantation” in them.
“It has been co-opted to mean a gated community in the area,” said Marisa Wojcikiewicz, who started a petition last month to change the names of the resorts and gated communities. “It is very strange, to say the least, considering that the island is inextricably linked to the plantation economy.”
According to Wojcikiewicz, whose petition has over 8,000 signatures, a manager of the Hilton Head Plantation development had not entirely shot down the idea of changing the name of the development. Wojcikiewicz said she was surprised to find that some residents of the developments, who are mostly white, older and affluent, supported changing the name.
Peter Kristian, general manager of the Hilton Head Plantation property owners association, did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
In Plantation, Florida, Auguste has two options to get the city to change its name. The City Council can vote to have a referendum added to the November ballot for the name change or Auguste can go door to door to collect signatures from at least 10% of the city’s 94,000 residents, which would compel a City Council review. In Hilton Head, because the developments and resorts are privately owned, the onus is on the owners and investors to make any name changes.
Most people don’t want to be told that something they are doing is wrong, according to Wojcikiewicz, particularly when they have never given any thought to how it might be hurtful.
“Many people are afraid to admit that they were blind to the fact that it is racist,” she said. “They think a plantation is this beautiful, expansive, green, calm, Southern idyllic life that everyone wishes they could have. We have deluded ourselves.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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