Inside the Sharswood Plantation: Family discovers ancestors were enslaved there after buying the home
GRETNA, Va. (WDBJ) - Driving down Riceville Road, its hard to miss the large gothic-style home in this rural community.
But beyond the 200-year-old walls lies a deep history uncovered by the descendants of the slaves who lived and worked on the Sharswood Plantation.
“We have a very big family,” said Fredrick Miller, owner of Sharswood. “I just wanted to be able to bring them all together at special times and just celebrate.”
In 2021, Fredrick Miller was looking for a house to host family events and reunions. His sister, Karen Dixon-Rexroth, convinced him to buy the home just up the road from their mother’s house.
“We often passed the house probably several times out of one day. So, just think of how many millions of times we passed this property and never really wondered what it was. We just knew it was a big old house,” explained Dixon-Rexroth.
Little did they know they would soon be holding the key to the big old house unlocking the history of their enslaved Miller ancestors.
“I said, ‘oh, my God. Do you know what you just did?’ explained Dexter Miller, Fred Miller’s cousin. “I knew the history of the house, but I did not have facts.”
Cousins Miller and Dixon-Rexroth immediately began searching for those facts and then reached out to local historian Karice Luck-Brimmer.
“When I started doing this research for them, I had no idea that it was going to place them there,” said Luck-Brimmer.
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Luck-Brimmer began her research at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse where she found a labor contract signed by slave owner and homeowner Nathanial Crenshaw-Miller on August 1866.
“They were by the enslavers after emancipation. A lot of times, the formerly enslaved, they just couldn’t move on. You’ve been here your whole life. A lot of people hadn’t been outside or off the lands of the plantation. So, it’s like, ‘how am I going to feed my family?’ A lot of them chose to stay on as sharecroppers. That’s where we have the labor contract between Nathaniel Crenshaw-Miller and at least 10 of the people that he enslaved.”
Among those 10 slaves were David and Violet Miller - their great, great grandparents. Enslaved, and married, on the same property he now owned.
“Words cannot express how I felt when I found out that my relatives actually were a part of this plantation, and I walked on the same grounds that my ancestor walked on. Tears began to roll. You feel like you’re home at last,” added Miller.
Everything down to the nails was made by the slaves. There were least 58 on the 2,500-acre plantation at one time.
“We see this big house here that faces the road, is really nice. But, when we go directly behind there, where the less fortunate people worked live, it’s a totally different world. I want people to see that and to understand that slavery did happen. It impacted people in a different way. I also think that the residuals of slavery exists today,” said Miller.
The Millers plan to restore the slave quarters on the property where their ancestors ate, slept, and cooked for their enslavers.
“It’s still standing. I’m proud that I know that my people put in the work to have that built, even though it was during a time of slavery and during slavery there was oftentimes of being abuse or neglect. I know that they were strong people and within that, that building still stands strong,” added Dixon-Rexroth.
The slave cemetery tombstones without names also stand strong, but years of neglect have made them unidentifiable to the naked eye.
Periwinkle covering the ground and the headstones that all point East toward Africa are the signs that revealed the gravesite to the Millers.
“Everyone should be laid to rest with some kind of dignity. To me, the way it is now, I think if you had an animal that passed on, you will probably put them the rest in a more dignified way, and it shouldn’t be that way. So, I want to do everything I can to make that better,” explained Miller.
They plan to host their second annual Juneteenth celebration event on the property June 18.
The big old house on Riceville Road will now welcome anyone to discover the history of Sharswood.
“It means a lot to me because I know that I can do something different with it. I want it to be a place that’s open, a welcoming kind of place. I don’t want it to be a place where you feel like, ‘I drive up and I just can’t go there.’ You can go there. You can come to Sharswood,” added Miller.
To learn more about Sharswood or donate to their GoFundMe to help restore and preserve the property, visit SharswoodFoundation.com.
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