Q: After reading your post about the “master” controversy at Yale, I was shocked to be driving by an Ivy League campus in upstate NY and seeing a sign that pointed the way to “Cornell Plantations.”
A: It’s interesting that you should write to us about this, since Cornell University is even now reconsidering the name “Cornell Plantations” and may end up changing it.
More about that later, and about how Cornell’s arboretum and gardens got that name 70 years ago. But first let’s examine the word “plantation.”
To many Americans, this is a loaded word. In a country that still bears the scars of slavery, “plantation” evokes images of the antebellum South, whose economic system depended upon slave labor.
But even before its use in America, the word had meanings connected with colonialism and the domination of defeated countries. This is because from its earliest appearance in English, “plantation” has had dual meanings.
The ultimate source of “plantation” is the classical Latin plantātiōnem, propagation from cuttings, which was derived from plantāre, to propagate by cuttings.
In medieval Latin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, plantātiōnem came to mean “something that has been planted,” as in a plant, a foundation, an institution, a nursery, or a colony.
Meanwhile, plantāre gave early Old English the verb “plant,” which had two sets of meanings: (a) to set a seed or plant into the ground; and (b) to found something like a colony or church, or to instill an idea, emotion, belief, etc.
These dual senses of the verb “plant” were first recorded at the same time, in King Ælfred’s 9th-century translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.
When “plantation” appeared in English in the early 1400s, the OED says, it was a product of both the medieval Latin plantātiōnem and the Old English verb “plant.” Consequently it had two broad meanings—the establishment of an institution or a colony, or the placing of a seed or shoot in the soil.
The sense of “plantation” that was recorded first, according to OED citations, was “something that has been founded, established, or implanted, as an institution, a religion, a belief, etc.”
This sense of the word first appeared in the Foundation Book of St. Bartholomew’s Church, Hospital and Priory in London, which the OED dates at around 1425. The manuscript refers to St. Bartholomew’s as “this new plantacioun.”
(Sir Norman Moore, who published a history of the 12th-century hospital in 1918, places the date of the manuscript at “about the year 1400.”)
The next recorded meaning of “plantation” is defined by the OED as “the action of planting seeds or plants in the ground.”
This sense first appeared around 1429 in an anonymous book, Mirour of Mans Saluacioune: “Aarons ȝerde [rod] fructified without plantacioune.” (In the biblical Book of Numbers, Aaron’s rod sprouted buds and produced almonds.)
Both of those early senses of “plantation” are now obsolete, the OED says, but they evolved into these later meanings in the 16th and 17th centuries:
(1) “A cultivated bed or cluster of growing plants of any kind,” or “an area planted with trees, esp. for commercial purposes.”
(2) ”A settlement in a conquered or dominated country; a colony.” This usage, the OED says, is found “chiefly with reference to the colonies founded in North America and on the forfeited lands in Ireland in the 16th-17th centuries; also with reference to the ancient colonies of Greece, etc.”
(3) “An estate or large farm, esp. in a former British colony, on which crops such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco are grown (formerly with the aid of slave labour).”
An extended use of that last meaning, the OED says, developed in the 1950s: “any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic, esp. in fostering an environment of inequality and servitude reminiscent of slavery.”
Oxford says this sense appears “chiefly in African-American usage,” and all of its citations are from African Americans. Among them is this one from Miles Davis’s Autobiography (1989):
“All the record companies were interested in at the time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off.”
This OED example appeared a decade later in the New York Times: “Civil rights groups advocated a boycott of Twins games and the future Hall of Famer Rod Carew said he did not want to keep playing for Griffith’s ‘plantation.’ ”
However, we’ve found many examples of “plantation” used pejoratively by whites as well as blacks, especially in politics.
In September 2014, a Republican Congressman, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, said that Democratic Senator Harry Reid “runs the Senate like a plantation.” Cassidy added, “It is his personal, sort of, ‘It goes if I say it does, if not it stops.’ ”
Cassidy was then running for a Louisiana Senate seat, and his rival, Rep. Rob Mannes, the Tea Party candidate, jumped all over him for using the word:
“Congressman Cassidy may not realize this,” Mannes said, “but the language he used included a term that is incredibly offensive to many Americans and he should immediately apologize.”
As many journalists noticed, the controversy was reminiscent of a similar remark by Hillary Clinton in 2006, when she was a senator. She accused Republicans of running the House “like a plantation … in a way so that nobody with a contrary view has had a chance to present legislation, to make an argument, to be heard.”
But she wasn’t the first. In 1994 Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, said the Democrats “think it’s their job to run the plantation” and “it shocks them that I’m actually willing to lead the slave rebellion.”
Black public figures have even used the term against one another. In 2013, the scholar Cornel West called the Rev. Al Sharpton “the bonafide house negro of the Barack Obama plantation.”
Similarly, the phrase “plantation politics” has been used since the early 1960s to describe the control that a small, select few can exercise over a much larger group.
The term was apparently coined by the sociologist and historian Timuel Black, who used it to describe how Chicago’s mayor used black ward bosses to control the black vote.
When Black ran for the Chicago City Council in 1963, he “took on the political machine of Mayor Richard J. Daley, accusing him of ‘plantation politics’—a phrase that garnered national attention,” according to a page honoring him on the University of Chicago’s website.
While the OED has no entry for the phrase “plantation politics,” it does have one for “plantation mentality.”
Oxford describes this as a “derogatory” term for “an attitude likened to that which was prevalent on plantations operating with slave labour, esp. in accepting or condoning racial inequality or paternalism.” We’ll quote a couple of the citations, beginning with the earliest:
“The plantation mentality still prevails and policy tends too strongly toward rehabilitation of the bankrupt planter.” (From the Journal of the Royal African Society, 1936.)
“The continuation of the plantation mentality in both blacks and whites, the white student activists told us, has got to stop.” (From Black Power and Student Rebellion, 1969, by James J. McEvoy and Abraham H. Miller.)
The six standard dictionaries we’ve checked don’t mention slavery in their entries for the noun “plantation.” They use terms like “resident labor” or “resident workers” to describe the people cultivating crops on a large estate or farm.
Considering all the evidence, though, we believe that more Americans associate the word “plantation” with its slave past than with its purely horticultural meaning.
This brings us back to Cornell University, which named its vast complex of arboretum, gardens, and nature preserves “Cornell Plantations” in 1944. Why that name?
This use of “plantations,” according to university websites, was an attempt to cleanse the term and re-establish its purely horticultural sense.
Don Rakow, a former director of the Cornell Plantations, said the name “Cornell Plantations” was coined by the botanist and horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey, the first dean of the Cornell College of Agriculture.
“We believe that Bailey purposely chose to dismiss older associations of the word ‘plantations’ with slavery in favor of its proper meaning: ‘areas under cultivation or newly established settlements,’ ” Rakow said in a 2011 interview with the Ithaca Times.
Bailey (along with his father) was named “Liberty” because his grandfather was “an ardent abolitionist, one of the earliest in Vermont,” according to a 2011 article in Verdant Views, the Cornell Plantations magazine.
“When it came time in 1944 for Bailey to name Cornell’s newly established botanical garden and arboretum,” the magazine says, “it was perhaps this history and his own passion for democracy and education that led him to choose Cornell Plantations. He purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word.”
Apparently this linguistic rehabilitation never came to pass, at least not in the view of A. T. Miller, Cornell’s associate vice provost for academic diversity.
“There have been rather steady expressions of surprise and objections to the name by individuals since 1944 itself, when there were clearly misgivings,” Dr. Miller told us in an email.
We heard much the same thing from Prof. Edward E. Baptist. “I have also noted the weirdness of this name in my own lectures,” said Dr. Baptist, who specializes in 19th-century American history, particularly the history of slavery in the South.
But as we mentioned above, change may be in the air.
Christopher P. Dunn, current director of the Cornell Plantations, said in an email that the institution has begun a process that “will determine if our current name does or does not support our brand, vision, mission, and values.”
He announced this “rebranding” in a column he wrote for the Cornell Daily Sun on Oct. 8, 2015:
“There is one key element that all botanic gardens have in common: celebrating, displaying and studying the rich diversity of the world’s plants,” he wrote. “Yet to be truly effective, this celebration of natural diversity must also embrace human diversity.”
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