Bennett family wedding tradition continues at Magnolia Gardens
The War Between the States delayed Adam Bennett’s marriage to Hannah Williams. But when the fighting stopped, they exchanged vows at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in a house that replaced the one burned by federal troops.
Although the war was not kind to Magnolia and other plantations near the Ashley River west of Charleston, the Union victory gave the couple something they’d not known before — their freedom.
Bennett was likely born into slavery at Magnolia and Hannah Williams was possibly enslaved at a nearby plantation. The couple lived and worked at Magnolia, where Bennett was a lead gardener before and after the war. They had seven children after the conflict ended in1865. Following Adam Bennett’s death in April 1910, two of his sons carried on their father’s garden legacy at Magnolia.
Details of the Bennett’s’ early life vanished in the house fire, but their memories remain with their descendants, who’ve carried another family tradition at Magnolia into modern times. Two people in the Bennett lineage have exchanged wedding vows at Magnolia and a third wedding of a great-great-granddaughter was held in late October.
That wedding comes at a time when plantation sites are seen by some as an unacceptable place to exchange wedding vows. Last year, a social media campaign blasted plantation weddings. The negative attention intensified this summer during demands for racial justice following George Floyd’s death while in the custody of Minneapolis police, sparking peaceful protests and riots in Charleston and elsewhere. Those protests led to a closer examination of slavery’s lingering trauma, especially in the Holy City, the cradle of human bondage.
The Bennett descendants have a shared history with the Drayton-Hastie family that has owned Magnolia continuously since the late 1600s. Although the white family profited from the land, the enslaved people at Magnolia like the Bennetts shaped and nurtured the gardens into what they are today, the family said. It is their birthright to enjoy the gardens, they insisted, regardless of public sentiment about plantation weddings.
When Adam Bennett’s great-granddaughter Deborah Grace was a young girl, she could not decide if she should be proud or ashamed that her great-grandparents were enslaved at Magnolia. That changed as she learned about her ancestors’ relationship with Magnolia’s owner, the Rev. John Grimké Drayton. As an Episcopal minister, he skirted state law to secretly teach some of the enslaved people to read the Bible and he presided during the marriages of his enslaved couples, according to Magnolia’s historian Caroline Howell.
Grace’s great-grandparents and other relatives are buried in Magnolia’s African-American Cemetery. At the time of their deaths, the Rev. Drayton placed headstones at their graves with a poignant inscription on Adam Bennett’s marker, indicating he was appreciated, Grace said. It reads, “In life the family he served loved and trusted him, in death they honor him.”
Before the War Between the States ended, Adam Bennett and his enslaved relatives “were never freed. They worked their fingers to the bone,” said Grace, a retired administrative assistant for a federal agency. “That is the harsh reality of slavery and it does make you angry. The injustice is always there, but I found some consolation in knowing there was some compassion.”
Grace’s cousin Sorona Bennett-Jenkins told Magnolia’s former owner, the late John Drayton Hastie Sr., in early 1985 that she wanted to marry Edward Jenkins on Magnolia’s White Bridge. On the crest of the iconic bridge they exchanged their vows in an August 10, 1985, ceremony witnessed by more than 200 relatives and friends.
The wedding party included Bennett-Jenkins’ cousin, four-year-old Charity Grace, a nervous flower girl in a fuchsia-colored dress. Three decades later, Charity Grace, Deborah Grace’s daughter, chose Magnolia as her wedding venue. With her Haitian-born fiancé, Ricardo Gabriel Augustin, they stepped into a “circle of love” made with peony flowers arranged on the carriage house lawn. Then they “jumped the broom,” a marriage ceremony tied to antebellum slave communities. Their wedding day was purposely held on Nov. 7, 2015, the 99th birthday of her grandmother, Susan Bennett Weston, whose brother, was Adam Bennett’s grandson and his namesake.
Sorona Bennett-Jenkins’ daughter, Candice Jenkins, married Josh Jackson this October. The invitation for the Bennett-Jackson ceremony acknowledges slavery as “America’s horrific, ugly stain that caused our ancestors grief, hardship and pain.” The invitation includes a tribute to the Bennetts’ son, John Bennett. Born in 1878, his memory is enshrined in a camellia named for him. It is one of three camellias Magnolia has registered for people of African descent employed at the gardens.
“We choose Magnolia for celebrations and with each celebration the story is acknowledge and told to each new generation,” Bennett-Jenkins said. “Lest we forget, we will not allow our family’s history to be cast into the abyss. Our ancestors deserve the acknowledgement.”
Bennett-Jenkins said she was surprised to learn from John Drayton Hastie, Sr. that she was “the first Bennett descendant to be married at Magnolia.” Magnolia is where her family’s history begins in America. “This is our family’s soil,” said Bennett-Jenkins, a human resource manager for a state agency. “We certainly didn’t benefit from it monetarily, however, the family started there and we’ve earned the right to go there and have a wedding.”
Augustin and Bennett-Jenkins said they appreciates that the Hastie family continues to maintain ties with descendants of people enslaved at Magnolia. Augustin has never received a negative comment about her wedding there. Two years ago, at the family’s reunion at Magnolia, however, her husband “became upset to see and understand where my people came from and the kind of life they lived. He does not regret that we got married here,” she said seated in Magnolia’s indoor tropical garden. “He mourned for my family for what they had gone through.”
Herb Frazier is a Charleston-based writer. He’s the former public relations director at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.