Monday, December 22, 2014

Great-grandfather’s life, love affair with slave detailed by former Ottawan

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 6/20/2014

Bill Miller’s great-grandmother, Sophia, was a slave during the Civil War era in Bolivar, Tennessee — but she wasn’t raised or treated like most slaves.

Sophia grew up in Austin Miller’s mansion, Magnolia Manor, on the site of one of his plantations in Bolivar, Bill Miller said.

Bill Miller’s great-grandmother, Sophia, was a slave during the Civil War era in Bolivar, Tennessee — but she wasn’t raised or treated like most slaves.

Sophia grew up in Austin Miller’s mansion, Magnolia Manor, on the site of one of his plantations in Bolivar, Bill Miller said.

“My great-grandmother was raised in the house in a very non-conventional style for slaves,” he said. “Slaves were expected to work in the fields and do housework. You couldn’t sit around and play, you had to work, but my great-grandmother never did. There were three white girls down the street from the mansion that she became friends with and she grew up with the lifestyle of those white girls. Austin Miller didn’t care. He just let her be and that was very non-traditional — it was unheard of. You’d get a lash across your back or your fingers cut off.”

Bill Miller’s first published book, “Seeds of Magnolia,” is a nonfiction story outlining the lives of Austin Miller and Sophia during their time at the manor. The book was released Feb. 24.

Miller, 71, Jackson, Tennessee, lived south of Ottawa from 1999 to 2011 before moving back to the Volunteer State. During his time in Franklin County, he was a member of the legislative action committee for the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce and president of the Franklin County Farm Bureau, he said. He originally is from Bolivar, which is located about 35 miles southwest of Jackson.

“Seeds of Magnolia” features a look into the life of Miller’s great-grandparents. Austin Miller was a prominent member of the Tennessee Legislature and owned two large plantations during the Civil War, one in Tennessee and the other in Mississippi.

“He was a wealthy person,” Miller said. “He was a judge, a commissioner for the county and a member of the Legislature. He lived in Bolivar in Magnolia Manor and the mansion is still there today. I guess he kind of raised my great-grandmother because he bought her mother [Elizabeth] and my great-grandmother was just a little tot, about 6 or 7 years old. He didn’t want her, but he took her. He had to take her in order to get her mother because he wanted her as a housekeeper.”

Austin Miller might not have wanted Sophia when he bought her mother as a slave, but his feelings soon changed. In 1854, Sophia and Austin Miller had a baby together, Richard — Bill Miller’s grandfather.

“Sophia was born in 1834 and Austin got her pregnant when she was 19 so she gave birth to Richard in 1854,” Miller said. “Richard stayed [at Magnolia Manor] around 1870, and when he did leave, Austin Miller provided a home for both him and his mother, Sophia.

“It was not like we think of slavery,” he said. “This was just a little microcosm on the edge of town that was so different. Maybe it happened somewhere else, but I’ve never heard of it.”

The book delves into the relationships of Austin Miller, Sophia and Sophia’s mother, Elizabeth, as they lived in the mansion. Tensions rise when the house becomes “a hotbed of chaos fueled by overzealous attitudes and unyielding temperaments,” according to the book description on Amazon.com

The idea to write the 457-page book came to Miller while he was doing extensive genealogy work on his family’s past, he said. He wanted to make something for other members of his family, but he soon discovered he was the only one with a passion for genealogy.

“As I was doing the work on all the members of the family, I was writing notes,” Miller said. “It dawned on me that, why not take all these notes that I have and put it in the format of a book and get it published? That is where it was going.”

It took him six months to write the book and another six months to edit it, he said. Before he started writing the book, Miller said he had done a lot of technical writing including research articles for journals, but he’d never written a book before.

“My wife made me send [the book] to get published,” he said. “She literally did.”

And for good reason. His book has sold about 150 to 200 copies thus far and has gotten good feedback, he said. He already has given a copy to the Ottawa Library, 105 S. Hickory St. Miller said his friend, Almeda Edwards, Ottawa, has read the book three times and still won’t put it down.

“The book has been getting outstanding reviews,” Miller said.

“Seeds of Magnolia” is published through CreateSpace and can be found at billmillerbooks.com

“I felt like I just wanted to write the book because I have four brothers and a sister, and stuff like that never interested them,” Bill said. “When I was a kid, my father used to tell me those stories over and over and he got them from Richard, Austin Miller’s son. Nobody else seems to care, and I don’t have anyone to tell my stories to anymore because kids don’t want to listen.”

Miller isn’t stopping his writing with “Seeds of Magnolia.” He hopes to have his next book, “To Hell and Back,” done by the end of the year, he said. This coming book is expected to be a fiction, thriller-type story involving ghosts and spirits, he said.

Miller lives with his wife, Mary “Ruby” Miller, and two grandsons, Chase Dyle and Kiev Graham, in Jackson.

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