Restoring the Record of Enslavement at Lincoln's Ancestral Virginia Home

Dec 19, 2019

An old sign sits in the entryway of the Lincoln homestead.
Credit Bridget Manley

A local home with famous presidential ties has recently been purchased by a couple who intend to restore the property – and correct the historical record. WMRA’s Bridget Manley has this report.

[Mowing sounds…]

The historical marker in front of the home.
Credit Bridget Manley

If you drive along Route 42 near Linville, you may notice a beautiful but deteriorating yellow farmhouse, with a historical marker peeking through the overgrown brush. The marker describes an incredible tidbit of local history - that the property was the ancestral home of President Abraham Lincoln.

His father, Thomas, was born at the homestead. The marker even indicates that without Daniel Boone encouraging Lincoln’s father to move west to Kentucky, the President himself may himself been born there. The home was lived in by cousins of The Great Emancipator during the Civil War - and the Virginia Lincolns owned slaves.

The home has been vacant for decades. Until now.

SARAH BIXLER: We’ve been doing a lot of work already…the place was very overgrown and so what you see now … a lot more than you would have seen if you came a week ago… (laughing…)

Benjamin and Sarah Bixler, both graduates of Eastern Mennonite University, have purchased the property and intend to renovate and rebuild the home and farm the land.

The Bixlers move a table in front of the old hearth.
Credit Bridget Manley

As we walk into the back door of the home, Sarah explains that instead of restoring the house and filling it with the ideas of a lost cause narrative, they plan to dive deep into the records and find out as much as they can about the people who were enslaved there -- and lift up their stories in the same way local lore has lifted up the stories about the Virginia Lincolns.

SARAH: There are historical documents we plan to dig into. Just to understand who has been on this land and who has been walking through and working in this house. We know an awful lot about the Lincolns, and we don’t want to discount the importance of their history in this community, but we also want to lift up the stories of those names that have not been recorded in historical records.

After Sarah was hired by Eastern Mennonite Seminary this past spring, the Bixlers stumbled upon the property while looking for homes. They began to feel as though this would be their life's’ work.

The Bixlers on the porch of the homestead.
Credit Bridget Manley

BENJAMIN BIXLER: One of the most prominent things is [that] there is a legacy of slavery on this property. So that’s something that we want to wrestle with, and what does it mean to be on a property where slaves were held?

Benjamin says that learning that legacy, and being able to have honest conversations about the people who did not receive the decency of recognition in the historical record, is as important as the physical restoration of the home.  

BENJAMIN: What does it mean for us to want our place to be a place of hospitality when it has that legacy? And just trying to sort through some of those pieces of the history as well. That - the history - and wrestling with the hard history matters as much as preserving the architectural features of the home.

The sign to the cemetery.
Credit Bridget Manley

Walk up the road just a few hundred feet to the top of the hill, and you will find the Lincoln Cemetery.  The markers are old and worn, and most contain the last name Lincoln.

And then there is this marker: “Uncle Ned and his wife Queen. The Last Of The Lincoln Slaves.”

Robin Lyttle is President of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project. They work with families in the Valley to find information about family trees and stories that have been buried over time.

She’s says not much is yet known about the two people memorialized on the gravestone, but she’s excited to dig into the records with the Bixlers to find out about their lives and the lives of so many others who were held there.

Robin Lyttle is President of the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.
Credit Courtesy Robin Lyttle

ROBIN LYTTLE: I would hope that we will be able to help round out the history and find, eventually, people who would have been associated with the homestead at different times that may have still had some connections through writing, or familial. You know, to help connect us to people today whose ancestors may have been associated with that plantation.

The Bixlers have already partnered with the Black Heritage Project for an exciting program -- bringing Joe McGill, Founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, to the Lincoln Homestead on Juneteenth for a slave dwelling experience and educational presentation.

They are also working with other area groups who have been involved with the homestead.

Phillip Stone is President and Founder of the Lincoln Society of Virginia. He’s also the former President of Bridgewater College and Sweet Briar College, and researching and documenting the Lincoln Homestead has been a part of his life’s work. 

Phillip Stone, President and Founder of the Lincoln Society of Virginia, in his law office in Harrisonburg.
Credit Bridget Manley

PHILLIP STONE: There were times over the last ten years, let’s say, where people would come in and say ‘I’m interested in buying the homestead and fixing it up, can you tell me more about it’ and I would try to give them the information, hoping they would restore it to its former dignity. When the Bixlers came along, I got pretty excited. They have the passion.

He has also been in touch with the Bixlers about his annual Lincoln Day ceremony, which is held every year at the Lincoln cemetery on February 12th.

And so, as the Bixlers strip the paint from the walls and clear away the brush, so too do they begin their work on shedding light on the people who lived through one of Americas worst sins.

In the cemetery on the property, this graveyard marker says “Ned and Queen - The Last of the Lincoln Slaves.”
Credit Bridget Manley