A TikTok revealed a a disturbing trend of turning slave quarters into “cute” hotel rooms.
Airbnb has had its share of high profile problems recently, but none of them top the atrocity that one TikToker pointed out this week: The site is home to several vacation rental listings for pimped out former slave quarters — a pretty bold move for a company that prides itself on diversity and inclusion.
Wynton Yates, an entertainment and civil rights attorney who goes by @LawyerWynton on TikTok, recently exposed a (since-removed) Airbnb listing advertised as “The Panther Burn Cottage @ Belmont Plantation” in Greenville, Mississippi. In its description — as seen via screenshots on Yates’s TikTok — the listing boldly says that the cottage once served as a slave quarters in the 1830s before it was used as a sharecropper cabin and later a medical office. To add insult to injury, the listing’s owner has Superhost status, a designation Airbnb gives to “someone who goes above and beyond in their hosting duties and is a shining example of how a Host should be.”
“The owner of this property is making money from slavery.” - Wynton Yates
They did, indeed, go above and beyond our lowest expectations. If the entire listing wasn’t tone deaf enough, the reviews under it were even worse. “Enjoyed everything about our stay,” one guest, Kristin, wrote. Another guest, Katie, had a whole lot to say about the surroundings and nothing at all to say about the fact that she had stayed in a yassified torture chamber. “Highly recommend watching the sunset!”
“We are taking this report seriously and have deactivated all listings associated with this property as we investigate,” an Airbnb spokesperson said in an email to Mic. Mic reached out to Belmont Plantation for comment as well, but did not receive an immediate response.
Yates tells me his brother first saw the listing and sent it to a family group chat. His first thought when he saw the picture was that it couldn’t be real; when he looked it up on Airbnb, he was flabbergasted to see that it was. “Growing up, [my family] would take my siblings and my cousins and I and put slave shackles in our hands so that we could feel the weight of the steel that was put on our ancestors’ bodies to contain them,” Yates says. “To see someone just blatantly make a mockery out of it just didn’t sit right with me.”
If this wasn’t real, it would make for a riveting parody of Americans’ willful ignorance about Black history. Unfortunately, this is real life, and it’s only scratching the surface of something far more sinister. The listing featured in Yates’ TikTok has since been taken down from (the cottage is still shown on the plantation’s website, but the booking link goes to the now-defunct Airbnb page) — but a quick search reveals there are many others like it. There’s this “tiny home” cottage on a Georgia plantation named after a slave who lived there; this New Orleans “suite” where enslaved people once lived; this mansion with “newly renovated guest rooms to the back of the house [that] once served as slave quarters”; this “historically renovated slave quarters” rental that features “exposed brick walls”; and this restored, “haunted” former slave cottage in the heart of New Orleans.
It’s particularly jarring how so many of these listings openly state the origins, without much (if any) acknowledgement of the sordid history. The mentions of slavery and education on the Georgia plantation’s website, for example, feel quite sanitized. And the listing for the “haunted” cottage in New Orleans mentions its “hard past,” but moves on from the slavery fact quickly: “It started as a slave quarters and then was purchased by a family in 1858 who resided in the house until 1915,” the description states. “In 1902, the house created a lot of drama in the neighborhood as it had an explosion in the kitchen that did minor damage to the house but burned down other properties in the neighborhood. There have been reports of ghost sitings here.”
All of this begs the question: Do white people in this country take slavery seriously?
In the 1800s, thousands of slave quarters and cabins were built on the site of plantations around the country. In them, children and adults died of disease, mistreatment, and overwork. Plantations were graveyards and places of unfathomable human misery where families were torn apart; some have referred to those Southern plantations as “America’s Auschwitz,” referencing one of the most well-known Holocaust concentration camps, Smithsonian Magazine reported. To turn these slave quarters into cutesy hotel rooms is at best trivializing the human life lost there; at worst, it’s an outright denial of enslaved people’s humanity.
“They have the privilege of mentally removing themselves from that history because they are not affected by it in the present day.” - Wynton Yates
When trying to make sense of the type of people who choose to ignore the history of slavery by taking bubble baths in a place where Black people met horrible fates, it’s hard not to take note of the fact that most, if not all, of the guests who wrote rave reviews are seemingly white. While we don’t actually know exactly what these people were thinking when they booked or stayed in the former slave cabins, Yates has his suspicions. “They don’t care about the true history of that space,” he says. “They care about the plantation in its visual beauty. … They have the privilege of mentally removing themselves from that history because they are not affected by it in the present day.” In contrast, he notes, “if you were to put any Black American in that space, the emotional reaction would be night and day.” While this is, of course, Yates’s own speculation, it’s not hard to see how he got there.
So, what should be done with these structures instead of renting them out? Yates suggests memorializing plantations and slave quarters, citing the (non-profit) Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans as an example of a place that doesn’t shy away from its history. He also thinks that people who own land where other people were enslaved should take time to learn about that history and really think about the fact that they’re making money off the backs of people of color. “If we’re looking at this honestly,” he tells me. “The owner of this property is making money from slavery.”
This post has been updated to include comment from Airbnb.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included a picture of a cottage at Destrehan Plantation. That cottage was never used as a slave quarter. While Destrehan Plantation itself housed enslaved people, the evidence shows that no slaves ever lived in the cottages for rent at Destrehan Plantation.