Enfilade

The Stories a House Can Tell

Posted in on site, today in light of the 18th century by Editor on February 12, 2022

In my mind, I’ve returned repeatedly over the past few weeks to this recent story from The Washington Post. Fascinating material for conceiving of history as a recovery process of things lost (or purposely obscured) and material culture as a means of making sense of where past and present meet. It was my first introduction to Jobie Hill’s Saving Slave Houses project. -CH

Joe Heim, “An Old Virginia Plantation, a New Owner, and a Family Legacy Unveiled,” The Washington Post (22 January 2022).

Sharswood in Gretna, Va., was built in the middle of the 19th century and at one point was the hub of a sprawling plantation. The Pittsylvania County property now consists of 10½ acres. Out of the frame behind the large tree at right is a cabin that may have been used by enslaved people as a kitchen and laundry for the main house as well as a residence. (Heather Rousseau for The Washington Post)

. . . It wasn’t until after Fredrick Miller bought Sharswood in May 2020 that its past started coming into focus. That’s when his sister, Karen Dixon-Rexroth and their cousins Sonya Womack-Miranda and Dexter Miller doubled down on researching their family history.

What neither Fredrick Miller nor his sister knew at the time was that the property had once been a 2,000-acre plantation, whose owners before and during the Civil War were Charles Edwin Miller and Nathaniel Crenshaw Miller.

Miller. . . .

As the puzzle pieces connected, a clearer picture emerged. Sarah Miller, great-grandmother to Fredrick, Karen and Dexter, and great-great-grandmother to Sonya, died in 1949 at 81. From her death certificate, they learned that Sarah’s parents were Violet and David Miller.

The 1860 Census does not list enslaved people by name, only by gender and age. In the 1870 Census, however, Violet and David Miller lived just a short distance from Sharswood. Between the many documents that the descendants of Sarah Miller have obtained, the fragments of family oral history they’ve sewn together and the proximity of the family to the plantation, they are certain that Violet and David Miller were among those enslaved at Sharswood. . . .

For Fredrick Miller, the 10.5-acre-estate he’d purchased for $225,000 ended up not being just a future gathering spot for the family, but also its first traceable point in the United States—an astonishing revelation for him. It also left him thinking about family history and the absence of that history for many people like him. . . .

There were 12 houses for enslaved people on the plantation, determined Doug Sanford, a retired professor of historic preservation at the University of Mary Washington, who has been documenting former homes of the enslaved across Virginia with Dennis Pogue, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland and retired archaeologist. . . .

The dilapidated cabin behind the main house at Sharswood isn’t visible from the road. A humble structure with a central chimney dividing two rooms, it feels almost hidden. But Sarah Miller’s descendants have focused their attention on it.

What the family learned from ongoing research by Sanford and Pogue and by Jobie Hill, a preservation architect who started the Saving Slave Houses project in 2012, is that the cabin was built before 1800, probably as the main house on the property, and then was divided into a duplex before 1820. From then on, they said, it probably served as a kitchen and laundry for the main house and a living space for some who were enslaved at Sharswood. . . .

The full article is available here»

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: