WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Hidden history: Family celebrates home of patriarch, a former slave

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STANTONSBURG — The house that Jack Sherrod built is a hidden history.

Built as a wood structure in 1886, the entire building has been encapsulated into brick and has had multiple additions over the years, but Leonard Paul Sherrod Jr., great-grandson of the builder, knows what’s underneath.

Sherrod and other family members are preparing for a grand reunion on Sept. 1-3 to be held at the Sherrod homestead.

“We are refurnishing, repairing, remodeling when necessary and getting it ready to be used as a venue for the upcoming September reunion,” said Sherrod, who was born in Wilson in 1933 and graduated from Charles H. Darden High School in 1952.

A picnic and a banquet are planned at the event, which Sherrod has titled “Exploring Our Family History.”

“There is so much history,” Sherrod said. “Not only is it family history, it is African-American history, and in some small portion, American history.”

That history begins with Jack Sherrod and his wife, Cassie. Both had been slaves, yet 20 years afterward had managed to build a home on what is now Watery Branch Church Road south of Stantonsburg near the confluence of Wilson, Greene and Wayne counties.

“He had been a slave until the end of the war,” Sherrod said. “As a freed man, he acquired this land and built a home on it. He could not read, nor write, but he could build things. He had this God-given talent for building things. It is not written, but certainly said, that he built a lot of structures in this area. He was a builder. It took him two years to build this house.”

What he did is hard to imagine, said Sherrod, who delivered The Wilson Daily Times in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

“It overwhelms me. It really does. He had to have had some help. It may have come from his former slave owner. We believe his name is John Sherrod. That is to be categorically proven, but he had to have help,” Sherrod said. “He couldn’t mill the lumber, so somebody who milled the lumber had to sell it to him. He had to have labor. Did he have all ex-slave labor? Did he have an integrated labor force? All of these are very interesting questions. The answers are back there, but we just don’t know. But it had to be an awesomely overwhelming project to do this.”

According to Sherrod, the facts are obscure because there are no records the family can find other than the land itself.

“But we know that he acquired other land all around us,” Sherrod said. “He grew this 17 acres to as far as you can see behind us. His youngest son, Arthur, actually farmed this land.”

“The only thing that we have that my great-grandparents touched is a family Bible, and it will be on display in the historical room because this is all about exploring family history,” Sherrod said.

The family has established lineage from five children of Jack and Cassie Sherrod: Arthur, Benjamin, Dallas, Fannie and John.

There were other children, including an Ida Sherrod, who are mentioned in the family Bible but whose history is unknown.

“We are hoping to locate more family members in the area that don’t know they are connected to this property, and we don’t know they are connected to this property,” Sherrod said.

Sherrod recently erected a sign in front of the home. “Sherrod Homestead, Established 1886, Proudly maintained by descendants of Jack and Cassie Sherrod,” it reads.

“The people in the area, they are excited, and they come by the property and they see the improvements that are being made. The sign out front has really, really raised the level of enthusiasm,” Sherrod said. “The entire area, Fremont, Eureka, Bailey, Sims, Wilson, Black Creek, all of these towns around here where we have family members. We have family members living all over the place.

“They live up and down the coast from Florida all the way up to New York and out west, of course. We are scattered all over,” said Sherrod, who resides in Porterville, California.

To finance the restoration and provide for the maintenance, family members stepped forward.

“I established three categories of stakeholders to build and increase interest in the project,” Sherrod said. “Founding stakeholders are those eight or 10 people who came together and put money down to get the property out of foreclosure. Sustaining stakeholders are people who contribute money each month for the maintenance and the upkeep and to pay the mortgage. And then we have, I think, the most important group, in-kind stakeholders, people who give of their time, their energy, their expertise, their intellect and their stuff.”

Sherrod is heading up committees to provide furnishings for the home and for the restoration.

Part of the restoration is to re-expose one of the original brick fireplaces that had since been covered over by walls.

Family members are offering their own memories of the site.

“A pig farm used to be on the back side of the property. One remembers that there was a pear tree over by the garage, and it is not there now,” Sherrod said. “Well, you can plant one. One of the things we are going to do is open up the grounds for family members to plant things — flowers, shrubs, trees, a memorial. All of these things are talking points.”

It’s all about ownership, Sherrod said.

“Everyone has to feel like they are a part of it,” Sherrod said. “We are making it so. They can become a part. Not just financially, but emotionally. And it’s working.”

Last week, Sherrod stood in the graveyard behind Watery Branch Free Will Baptist Church. The graves of Jack and Cassie Sherrod are right there, with those of other deceased family members, about 200 yards away from and within sight of the homestead.

“To be able to stand there in your yard and see where your great-grandparents are buried, that raises a lot of emotions within me,” Sherrod said. The house that he built and I can see his grave from the front yard.”

Restoring the homestead is a passion for Sherrod.

“I think the Lord put this in my spirit to be a part of preserving this property because it has been in the family for so long and it is such a rich history that I could not stand by and let it go,” he said.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818

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