First, it was the word "master"–used at universities since the Middle Ages as a title for someone deemed learned enough to teach and mentor younger scholars. It was abolished a few months ago at Princeton and Harvard because, you know, slaves in the Old South had masters.
Now, it's the word "plantation." It seems that the botanical gardens at Cornell University are known as the Cornell Plantations, the title they've borne since they were opened in 1944. But you know, slaves in the Old South worked on plantations, so "plantation" has got to go. Never mind that Cornell wasn't even founded until 1865, after the Civil War and two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation–or that the state of New York where Cornell is located was never a slave state. But an activist group, Cornell Black Students United, has been demanding since November 2015 for the name Cornell Plantations to be changed–and Cornell is seriously considering acceding to the demand.
“There is one key element that all botanic gardens have in common: celebrating, displaying and studying the rich diversity of the world’s plants,” Christopher Dunn, director of Cornell Plantations, wrote in The Cornell Daily Sun. “Yet to be truly effective, this celebration of natural diversity must also embrace human diversity.”
Soon, he said, the Plantations will be rebranding.
Cornell has not announced whether it has decided to change the name, and neither Dunn nor the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences responded to requests for comment in time for this article's deadline. But either way, the university hopes to address concerns about the name and its implications.
“Our staff and Advisory Council have been considering all aspects of our identity, our name, our mission and how our identity can best reflect what Cornell Plantations is — and does,” Dunn wrote.
The English word "plantation" derives from the Latin word "plantatio," meaning "a planting." By the Middle Ages, that word could mean a planting in either the literal, agricultural sense or the figurative sense of a founding of an institution. Thus the first English settlers in Massachusetts in 1627 dubbed their brand-new colony "Plimoth Plantation."
The big slave-worked cotton, tobacco, and sugar landholdings of the Old South were, of course, plantations in the former sense–but so are the non-slave-worked tea plantations in Southeast Asia to this day.
The word "plantation," in fact didn't acquire its negative connotations until the mid-20th century, according to the Grammarphobia blog:
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.”
Ironically, according to Inside Higher Ed, the name Cornell Plantations grew out of an effort to dissociate the word "plantation" from its connections to pre-Civil War slavery:
The horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey named the Cornell Plantations in 1944, and according to a profile in the Plantations’ magazine, he had nothing but good intentions: “He purposely chose to dismiss old associations with slavery in favor of the proper meaning of the word, plantations: ‘areas under cultivation’ or ‘newly established settlements.’”
But that strategy was too subtle and learned for today's student activists.