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The house that unlocked a family's history

Discovering the Sharswood slave cemetery
Reclaiming History: Inside the 60 Minutes story as it unfolded in real time 04:21

When Fred Miller, a 56-year-old Air Force veteran, purchased the white, Gothic Revival-style house with the green roof near his childhood home in southern Virginia, he wanted a large space to host gatherings for his close extended family. He was not expecting to unlock hidden chapters from his family's past.

Miller did not 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 last name.

"If I had known there was a 'Miller Plantation,' I maybe could have… put a connection with the last name Miller and that plantation," Miller told 60 Minutes. "But I'd never heard of a 'Miller Plantation' or a 'Miller' anything."

Fred Miller (left) and his sister Karen Dixon-Rexroth (right).

This Sunday on 60 Minutes, correspondent Lesley Stahl interviewed Fred Miller and members of his family at Sharswood, speaking about what they unearthed about the property and its past inhabitants. 

Fred Miller's sister Karen Dixon-Rexroth, who initially convinced her older brother to buy the property, and their cousins Dexter Miller and Sonya Womack-Miranda, did most of the research into Sharswood's past.

"Something drew me to knowing 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 looking at the previous owners, and also any records that were available online."

With time and the help of Karice Luck-Brimmer, a local historian and genealogist, the Millers were able to uncover documents that proved that their own ancestors were once enslaved at Sharswood.

"Since the revelation… I know that when the slaves brought food into the main house, they came up through the basement stairs," Fred Miller told 60 Minutes. "And there's a distinct wear on the basement stairs from years and years of traffic, of people walking up those stairs, I'm thinking, 'Wow, these are my people.'"

When the 60 Minutes producing team of Shari Finkelstein and Braden Cleveland Bergan first visited Sharswood to meet the family and scout the location, they were part of a conversation between Dexter Miller and his former coworker Bill Thompson, whose family bought the property in 1917 and owned it for more than a century. Thompson's sister sold it to Fred Miller in May of 2020. 

Bill Thompson (left) and Dexter Miller (right) worked together in the 1980s.

It was during this conversation that Miller asked Thompson the one question that had been on his mind for a long time.

"I said, 'Bill, there's one question that's been bothering me: Where is the slave cemetery?' He said, 'Dexter, it's right over there.' I said, 'Right over where?' He said, 'You see those trees over there?'"

And with that revelation, as seen in the video above, the 60 Minutes team accompanied the Millers to a cluster of trees just beyond Fred's property line, where for the first time they saw the likely burial site of their enslaved ancestors. Several weeks later, Lesley Stahl visited the site with Fred, who lives in California, and his sister Karen.

A headstone at Sharswood's slave cemetery. 

"It was heart-wrenching', I'll tell you that," Fred Miller said about seeing the cemetery for the first time. "Just to think that all these years of me wondering, and it was right under my nose the entire time, right here."

Fred Miller told 60 Minutes he plans to clean up the cemetery and is in the process of creating a non-profit foundation to also restore the slave quarters on the property to help educate people interested in the history of slavery. His sister said, for her, Sharswood has become a place of profound meaning and connection with the past.

"I would definitely say throughout this property I can feel something within me when I'm walking around, simply doing anything," Karen Dixon-Rexroth said. "I know that our ancestors are looking down on us with a smile."

You can watch Lesley Stahl's full report on Sharswood below.

Man unknowingly buys former plantation house where his ancestors were enslaved 27:07

The video above was originally published on May 15, 2022 and was produced by Keith Zubrow and edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.

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