Since the luxe furniture showroom Plantation opened in Capitol Hill in September 2016, Seattle activists have fired off at the store's name, which for some locals conjures painful reminders of American slavery. The store's owner, who operates three other locations in California, defended the name, noting that the word "plantation" has agricultural connotations unrelated to slavery.
But the activists, at one point, seemed to have won out. After facing weeks of community backlash, Katie Largent, who co-owns the Seattle store with her husband, wrote in an e-mail to the brand’s critics that they “can rest assured that there will NOT be a store called Plantation in this beloved city we all call home,” Capitol Hill Seattle reported at the time.
For some time, instead of a sign displaying Plantation’s name, a piece of printer paper taped to the business’ door explained the company was in the process of rebranding.
Now, nearly eight months into operations, a new window decal at the Boylston Avenue and East Pike Street store reads, "Plantation Design." The Facebook group Vanishing Seattle posted the new signage, prompting yet another round of protest.
Largent, the Seattle store’s sole employee, said she wrote the email to critics last September after receiving written and verbal threats “that the store would be vandalized and that I wouldn't be safe if I kept this name.”
“To have that kind of energy brought through the door while I'm here by myself, obviously I was scared,” she said. “That's not to say the name isn't going to change. [The process] is very complicated and we are not a single-store location… I don't know if you've ever tried to open a new business, but you're very vulnerable in the first several years, really, but especially in the first several months.”
When asked how long rebranding efforts might take, Largent said it was a matter of time and company resources. For the foreseeable future, the store will be called Plantation Design, she said. Largent said she plans to remove the decal sign and replace it with the company’s logo.
Last year, Capitol Hill bar owners Paul Berryman and Izzy Guymon faced similar backlash when they first opened their new bar as Spirit Animal, and then Spirit & Animal, after receiving criticism from members of Seattle's indigenous community. They eventually did away with the name entirely and named their bar Corvus and Co.
Largent maintains the conversation about Plantation should not be “about race" because that the company is “comprised of people of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals.”
In an e-mail, Plantation founder Mark Cole described his humble upbringings and the opportunities he was afforded to become a hairstylist in Seattle. He also mentioned that he has Black friends:
I would sincerely love to share my story with you when I have some time for you to have an open heart and mind. Enclosed is a photo of me and my life long friend Gene Juarez (Gene Juarez Salons) an immigrant from Mexico who grew up in Eastern Washington with parents who worked the fields. He gave me my first opportunity at 19 years old as a hairdresser and fought me to believe in myself and that I can accomplish great things. I came from a childhood in Alaska, living in a trailer with no running Water and holes in the floor that you could see the snow thru. Beaten and bullied on a weekly basis for being gay poor and worthless. Nothing was ever handed to me and it seriously breaks my heart to think that anyone would ever assume I had a sliver of thinking I am better than anyone. Sure, I'd love to share my story.
I am currently on a trip to Seattle to celebrate the last 27 years of my life with all of those who helped me get there. Black, white, gay, bi, trans, etc. I have never been a person to exclude, but someone to include. Build us up and find a common ground that will bring us together and not add towards the negative divide that people these days want to stir up.
This election has everyone on pins and needles and myself included desperately wishes we could all work towards loving and excepting all of this beautiful colorful world!
When asked about the company’s name, Cole said “the word plantation is not inherently racist and the word itself is not inarguably offensive.”
We have received dramatically more positive feedback from the Seattle community about our new store than we have negative. Given our position as a design showroom and the worldly nature of the word plantation, the majority of the diverse populations of people we interact with do not automatically have a negative association with the word.
We understand and are sensitive to the fact that some individuals may have concerns over the potentially negative connotation of the word in it’s historical context; however, the word plantation has several different meanings and contexts (i.e. plantation shutters, plantation style furniture, modern day agricultural plantations such as pineapple plantations in Hawaii, tea plantations, even marijuana plantations! etc.) and it is simply not accurate and highly presumptuous to say that it is most often connected to images of slave labor. Plantation is not synonymous with slavery. There are agricultural plantations all over the world today and plantation-style furniture and décor is still a commonly sought after style and common phrase used in the interior design industry (plantation shutters are a prime example).
Largent said the term "plantation" is used to describe a style of furniture, which includes “imported wood furniture pieces, big oversized ceiling fans, four poster beds, bamboo, rattan, and a world-travel resort vibe.” A number of celebrities, including Wanda Sykes and Jada Pinkett Smith, have bought furniture from Plantation before and haven’t criticized the name, she said. The store opened its first branch in Los Angeles, California in 1998.
“Our style has evolved over the last 20 years to a more modern ethos but the name has become a recognized brand in the home design market,” Largent said.
“We want to focus on helping people understand our intended use and design-related context of the name,” Cole said. “We will continue to consider any and all options to keep our community safe. As Seattle natives, small business owners, and some as residents, we are active members contributing to the betterment of our community and we will continue to do so.”
“For the NAACP, there are no excuses," said Dr. Sheley Secrest, vice president of the Seattle-King County NAACP and candidate for Seattle City Council. "There's nothing that can be said about 'coming home' or otherwise that's going to take away from our position that the name itself harbors such emotion. ... There's nothing [the owners] could possibly say that would justify or excuse the use of that name."
Seattle artist Natasha Marin, who founded the “Reparations.” project last year, described Plantation representatives’ defending the company’s name as a “softening of racism.”
“Part of me is disgusted and exhausted... in same way I've been as a Black woman in America,” she said.
Marin continued: “To them, calling their store Plantation is like calling their brand Pepsi or Coca-Cola. I think that really speaks to privilege and entitlement. If I step on your foot, it doesn't hurt me. [It's like saying], 'You're fine. So I don't have to be bothered by your pain unless I choose to be.' That's real power.”
Plantation’s presence on Capitol Hill—just a short bus away from the Central District, which many community members consider the heart of Seattle's Black community—also represents a longtime disinvestment from Seattle’s communities of color, Secrest said.
“It touches on that overall feeling of that loss of community power when the residents who are living there feel that they don't have a voice where they can change the conditions of their home or neighborhood,” she said. “That's the most unsettling part.”
She continued: “Beyond who's working at the store and their leadership roles, in bringing or deciding to bring this business of this old Southern way of life here to Seattle and then to pretend... that the connotation and the history that comes along with it that [doesn't exist], that has no place in Seattle, period.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified Seattle Plantation Design co-owner Katie Largent as the store manager. The author regrets the error.