When Fred Miller, a 56-year-old Air Force veteran, bought the Gothic Revival-style white house with a green roof near his childhood home in southern Virginia, he wanted a big space to accommodate gatherings for his close extended family. He never expected to unlock hidden chapters of his family’s past.
Miller didn’t know it at the time, but his new property was once a plantation. Named Sharswood, it was built in the 1850s by a slave-owning uncle and nephew who shared his surname.
“If I had known there was a ‘Miller Plantation,’ maybe I could have… made a connection to the Miller surname and this plantation,” Miller told 60 Minutes. “But I had never heard of a ‘Miller Plantation’ or a ‘Miller’ anything.”
Correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Fred Miller and members of his family in Sharswood, talking about what they discovered about the property and its former inhabitants.
Fred Miller’s sister Karen Dixon-Rexroth, who first convinced her older brother to buy the property, and their cousins Dexter Miller and Sonya Womack-Miranda, did most of the research on Sharswood’s past .
“Something made me know the history of this place,” Dixon-Rexroth told Stahl. “I knew it was an old place from the 1800s, so I started from there, as far as previous owners, plus any records available online.”
With time and the help of Karice Luck-Brimmer, a local historian and genealogist, the Millers were able to uncover documents proving that their own ancestors were once enslaved in Sharswood.
“Since the revelation…I know that when the slaves brought food into the main house, they came up the basement stairs,” Fred Miller told 60 Minutes. “And there’s a distinct wear and tear on the basement stairs from years and years of traffic, people coming up those stairs, I think, ‘Wow, those are my people.'”
When the 60 Minute production team of Shari Finkelstein and Braden Cleveland Bergan first traveled to Sharswood to meet the family and scout the location, they were part of a conversation between Dexter Miller and his former colleague Bill Thompson, whose family bought the property in 1917 and had owned it for over a century. Thompson’s sister sold it to Fred Miller in May 2020.
It was during this conversation that Miller asked Thompson the only question that had been on his mind for a long time.
“I said, ‘Bill, there’s a question that’s bothering me: where is the slave graveyard?’ He said, ‘Dexter, it’s right over there.’ I said, ‘Just on where?’ He said, ‘See those trees over there?'”
And with that revelation, as seen in the video above, the 60 Minutes crew walked the Millers to a group of trees just beyond Fred’s property line, where for the first time times they saw the probable burial place of their enslaved ancestors. Several weeks later, Lesley Stahl visited the site with Fred, who lives in California, and her sister Karen.
“It was heartbreaking, I’ll tell you,” Fred Miller said of the first time he saw the cemetery. “Just to think that all those years of wondering, and it’s was right under my nose the whole time, right here.”
Fred Miller told 60 Minutes that he plans to clean up the cemetery and is in the process of creating a non-profit foundation to also restore slave quarters on the property to help educate those interested in the history of slavery. Her sister said that for her, Sharswood had become a place of deep meaning and connection with the past.
“I would say without a doubt in this property that I can feel something inside me when I walk around, do anything,” said Karen Dixon-Rexroth. “I know our ancestors look at us with a smile.”
You can watch Lesley Stahl’s full report on Sharswood below.
The video above was produced by Keith Zubrow and edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.