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Discovery of Hidden Family Roots

by Sharon Riddick Hoggard -

Discovery Of Hidden Family Roots Brings Peace And Wholeness

In 2011, Sonya Womack-Miranda embarked on a yearslong journey of discovery — an unearthing of her family roots and its connection to a place called Sharswood. Located between Danville and Lynchburg, Virginia, Sharswood was a 2,000-acre hub for tobacco plantations in Pittsylvania County in the 1860s. Enslaved people ranging in ages from one to 72 lived there, worked there, and some, were buried there. Today, Sharswood is owned by a descendant of an enslaved Sharswood family and a cousin to Womack-Miranda. The twist of the descendants of the enslaved now owning the former plantation created significant media coverage. But for Womack-Miranda, who helped conduct research on the home, it was more personal than that.

For me it was always about my family’s connection to the property,” recalled the Norfolk State alumna. “I did the research, not because of the house, but because of my second great-grandmother who was a person.” At the time, all Womack-Miranda had was a first name. “My quest took me to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, where I visited the Family History Library. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons have created the largest genealogical library in the world – open to the public. I was looking for one of my ancestors that my mother referred to as Sarah.” The cross-country trip proved fruitful—Womack-Miranda was able to locate her second great-grandmother, Sarah D. Miller. “In 2018, I visited the courthouse in Pittsylvania County. My goal was to confirm what my grandfather, Charlie Max Miller, told me – that the property we now know as Sharswood, was what he referred to as the Miller plantation. At this point I want to prove that the plantation is linked to us.”

Womack-Miranda explained that she credits Alberta Elizabeth Miller Womack with giving her and her cousin, Dexter Miller, the clue that led them to link David and Violet Miller (the enslaved) to Sharswood. “This is the family historian (Miller Womack) who passed down the clues about the slaves. Without the information she provided in this search, there could not be a link to Sharswood and the Black descendants,” added Womack-Miranda.

As she continued to trace her research journey, Womack-Miranda remembered spending about two hours looking at deeds in the Pittsylvania County Courthouse. “When I saw that Charles E. Miller owned Sharswood last, I knew everything that my grandmother said was true. I wanted to scream right inside that courthouse because I was connecting my family to this particular plantation and to this particular area.” Womack-Miranda recalls the enormity of her discovery. “It’s true! It’s true! It was overwhelming and almost brought me to tears.”

Womack-Miranda’s cousin, Frederick Miller, who also grew up in Pittsylvania County and passed by Sharswood on his way to school, bought the property in May 2020, with the intention of hosting family gatherings. “I didn’t really know Fred,” said Womack-Miranda. “I’d see him at family reunions, but for me, this research has always been about the family . . . my African American descendants – the people buried in the slave cemetery.” So far, there have been at least two major functions in the summer of 2022 celebrated at Sharswood – Juneteenth, which brought out hundreds of celebrants and a family reunion – reuniting more than 200-plus family members.

Womack-Miranda continued to reflect on her family roots research saying, “It was merely a hobby as I mentioned in the 60 Minutes interview. Now, I have people from around the country who have contacted me asking me to look for slaves. I found every single slave linked to the Miller plantation – 19 slaves from my mother and father’s sides of the family.” She discovered that Sarah Miller is her great-great-grandmother and is the great-grandmother to her cousins Fred, his sister Karen Dixon Rexroth and Dexter Miller. Sarah was born on the plantation, but was not a slave; however, Sarah’s mother, Violet was enslaved there. Even after discovering this, Womack-Miranda wanted to know more. “I was so engrossed in the research, I had to take it a step further and get my DNA analyzed. Then I got the chance to go to Africa. I touched the walls of the slave castles where my ancestors were pushed out to sea in West Africa. I wanted to know where my ancestors exited Africa – the door of no return. I needed to do that.”

The story of Sharswood, its history and people, has made national headlines in recent years including articles in The Washington Post, and coverage on But for at least one descendent of the plantation’s legacy, the journey of discovery has had a remarkable impact. “I have had a unique journey that few African Americans can say they have experienced. I have touched the soul of my ancestors in America and Africa,” Womack-Miranda exclaimed. “My journey, in researching my ancestors, has taken me from America to Africa. I journeyed back to America and was able to connect the puzzle pieces to where my ancestors – my third great-grandparents David and Violet Miller landed on the Walnut Grove plantation in Halifax County, Virginia. They were later brought to the plantation we now know as Sharswood.”

The research has come full circle with the purchase of Sharswood by her cousin. “I was then able to touch the walls of the slave cabin where David and Violet lived and where my second great-grandmother Sarah Miller was born in 1869. I have touched the souls of my ancestors on both continents. I feel as an African American that I am no longer disconnected from my heritage, my history, or my roots. I now have a link to my ancestors – the people who were hidden from me. The discovery of my ancestors brings a sense of wholeness and makes me feel as if I am a complete human being knowing who I am.”

Editor’s Note: Sonya Womack-Miranda is publishing a book – a culmination of her research titled “Finding Sarah” with a publication date of November 2022.