“I could have become a prostitute and a crackhead or I could have become Cheryl Wills that’s on TV.”
– Cheryl Wills
Kunta Kinte, Kizzy, Chicken George…these names are legendary in the African-American community.
Many of us were too young to understand these complex “characters” and many more were born decades after they marched into homes across America. For folks old enough to know there seemed to be two sides – those who felt a sense of kinship and those who felt that while slavery may have occurred, Kunta, Kizzy, Chicken George and the events surrounding their lives were mere fabrications of a brilliant mind. Did it really go down like that?
For the late great Alex Haley it did go down like that. And, Kunta, Kizzy, Chicken George and ‘nem were not “characters “at all, but were branches of his own family tree. They were, in fact, his Roots.
Ostensibly Haley – though he long ago became an ancestor – has been
alone in the quest to learn what happened to his people before, during and after the Middle Passage. It’s taken a while but there’s a new crop of prominent root diggers popping up. With the creation of Ancestry.com as well as TV programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and the PBS miniseries African American Lives a fresh batch of Haleyites are noseying around in the fields of their ancestors. Who are these renegades, these revolutionaries that dare unearth the truth about their history, which is inextricably Africa and America’s history? Who are they?
They are those who refuse to sit in the dark any longer. And, luckily for me, I’ve been crossing their lighted paths.
Last month I (re)introduced you to Isaiah Washington, the activist and actor formerly known as “Dr. Preston Burke,” who successfully traced his roots all the way back to Sierra Leone.
Recently I had the immense pleasure to meet NY1 Anchor Cheryl Wills at her booksigning event in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Like many New York denizens I’ve watched her eloquently deliver breaking stories and current events just as most newscasters do. But I discovered, as you soon will, Cheryl is more than a talking head. She is a ball of fire! Cheryl and I sat down to converse about her new tome, Die Free: A Heroic Family History. I initially intended to make this a two-parter. But I changed my mind and decided to give it to you like Cheryl gave it me – straight, no chaser!
TL: What was the impetus, the one event that led to your writing this book?
CW: I was on Ancestry.com like a lot of people do. Didn’t know what I would find. And Tracee, I put in my last name – Wills. I put in the town where my father was born – Haywood County, Tennessee. Up pops the name “Sandy Wills.” That is such an unusual name for a Black man in the 1860s. And it keeps coming up – “1870 – Sandy Wills.” And I’m like, “Who is this?”
So I start digging and it says, “Sandy Wills – USCT.” And I went, “Oh my God; he served in the Civil War!” That’s [USCT] United States Colored Troops. You know you can just spiritually feel when you touch something and you know you’ve touched something special?
So I said, “I have to hire a genealogist to make sure –to find out if there is a relation.” Sure enough, Tracee, [the] genealogist comes back and says, “Sandy Wills is your great great great grandfather.” I almost fainted. And then he went to the national archives in Washington and got all of his records – that of Sandy and his widow – pulled them up and told me the whole story of a family I never knew.
The short version is Sandy was purchased by Edmond Wills. That was the first shock to know that I am Cheryl Wills because Edmond bought him when he was 10 years old on an auction block!
TL: Did they say who Edmond Was?
CW: I know all about Edmond.
TL: Of course.
CW: He was a white man who had a family and was living fat off the backs of African slaves as his parents did and as his
grandparents did coming from Virginia. Came to Tennessee to start a new life. Some family business, huh? Buying Africans.
So he purchased my grandpa three generations removed on an auction block and Sandy was removed from his mother – never to see her again – his father, his familiar environment and shuttled to the Wills Plantation in Haywood County, TN. While he was there, he bonded with 5 boys – James, Richard, Dick, Mack and Andy. These boys were all 7, 6 years old. Sandy was the oldest.
[In] 1863 when the slaves were allowed to fight, he rounded up all those younger boys and they all went and fought in the Fourth Heavy Field Artillery in the Civil War. Only one died (Cheryl later told me that Richard was the lone Wills soldier to lose his life in battle). My grandpa lived and the revelations that I found were mind-blowing and it defied all the things that you think you know about that era. Tracee, I found something all together different.
For example, when the slaves enlisted in the War the white officers would fill out an enlistment form. Now remember the slaves were kept illiterate – government imposed illiteracy. And it would say name, age, occupation, where were you born? And for occupation they would put “slave.” But for my grandpa, he told them “farmer.”
TL: Get out of here.
CW: Now you know I wanted to jump and run back in time and kiss that man. Because that meant that in his heart–
TL: He wasn’t a slave.
CW: Uh huh. A man that was born from a baby, snatched from his mother, been a slave all of his life stepped up with steel in his spine and when they said, “What do you do, boy?”
He said, “I’m a farmer.”
Already free. I was like, “There is a revolutionary in my blood. Hallelujah!”
TL: And what was his surname before Edmond bought him?
CW: Who knows? Because see slaves didn’t keep their birthdays, and their names would change with the ownership of every new [master]. So he married a woman named Emma. For example to answer your question or to illustrate what it was like for them. She was owned by the West family.
TL: So she was Emma West.
CW: Uh huh. Then she was sold to the Moore Family.
TL: So she became Emma West Moore.
CW: Some people – literally – some people knew her as West, some people knew her as Emma Moore. And then when she married Sandy, she became Emma Wills. And all of those names can be found on the censuses. And I’m like, “What lives these people led.” It’s unbelievable.
And then the extraordinary story with Emma…So he marries Emma; he comes back from the War a proud veteran. But was quiet about his service because obviously they beat the Confederacy and where he lived in Tennessee that’s where the Ku Klux Klan was born. So he didn’t brag about what he did because he would have been hung from the highest tree. He marries Emma.
TL: Your great great great grandma.
CW: My great great great grandma and the shocking thing that I found about her that changed my life. Every child she had – she had nine children with Sandy – now remember they are both former illiterate slaves. Every time, Tracee, she had a child she went to her former master’s house with her family Bible and said “Could you write the name of my baby and the day they were born?”
TL: Because she couldn’t do it herself.
CW: Because she couldn’t do it herself. Nine times, every single child she did it. Can you imagine?
TL: So she was sold from the Wests to the Moores and then she–
CW: Then the Civil War broke out and she was free, like all Africans were free in 1865 and then got married to Sandy.
TL: And where did they settle?
CW: They never left Haywood County, Tennessee. And so with those nine children now recorded in her family Bible that she can’t read, when Sandy dies she’s an illiterate now widow.
TL: And how old was Sandy when he died?
CW: He was about 50. Remember they didn’t keep their birthdays, so everything was a guessing game. And as brilliant and exquisite as she was, she realized that she was due a widow’s pension just like all the white Civil War widows. And the government put her through bloody hell. Not only her, they put all the Black widows through hell. “Where’s your birth certificate? Show us proof of your birth.” (Throws hands up in exasperation) How you gonna ask them for proof of birth when you did not even allow them to keep records of their coming or going? So they [government] would run out the clock hoping that they [Black widows] would get discouraged and say, “Just forget it.” And many of them did, but not my Grandma Emma.
So she hires a lawyer. Yes she did! I’ve seen all the papers this is how I know. This illiterate former house slave – former property of the Moore Family – understood her place in history as one of the first Black mothers to have children and keep them – hired a lawyer and said, “I don’t know my birthday, my husband didn’t know his, nobody behind me knows when they were born, but here’s my Bible; I had Joel Moore write the name and birthday of every child as they were born. Pay me!” And they paid her. (Claps hands) Isn’t that great?! She fought for what was rightfully hers.
TL: Do you know how much she received?
CW: Oh yeah. It says exactly. Yeah. Dollars. Remember this is the 1880s/1890s and you know ten dollars was a lot of money per child. And when I read that, Tracee, it changed my life.
TL: How so? How has this been life changing for you?
CW: In multiple ways – a new sense of legacy, empowerment and my place in the world. Now I have a new sense of purpose and I’m unapologetic about grabbing for success. Empowered to know that people behind me who had less than nothing, not even their birth dates, not even ownership. When Sandy died it said he only owned one horse. And when you see something like that in your family and you see how they struggled and you see the dignity that they had through it all.
Number one, if that doesn’t change you nothing will. Nothing will. And it’s changed me in the fact that I am going to avenge their slavery. I’m going to avenge their government imposed illiteracy and I’m going get all of the riches that they sowed into this country; I believe that they lay waiting not just for me but for all of us whose great great great grandparents helped build this country free of charge. So I have a real sense of purpose now and pride. And to know that their blood runs through my veins and the shame of three generations after them not even knowing their names. Not even knowing their names!
TL: So what is the one thing that you would do today that you have never dared to do before you knew about Sandy? What’s the one thing you have the guts to do now?
CW: For example the United Nations invited me to come speak before the General Assembly.
TL: Martin [Cheryl’s agent] told me about that. Congratulations!!
CW: I’m very excited about that. And that’s something I would not of had the nerve to do.
TL: Why not?
CW: Because I would have felt, “Why me?” I would have put myself down, “Oh maybe I’m not qualified.” And now I’m like, “Thank you. I accept; tell me what time to be there!” You understand what I’m saying?
TL: I do.
CW: Because now I see. I’m like, “They [ancestors] did that for me? They struggled and went through all that for me, with me in mind 100 years down the line? They kept their dignity and pride and they had that fortitude.” They didn’t do that for themselves. They did that for the generations that were going to follow them. So I have an obligation to them; I have an obligation to their memory.
TL: For every one person that digs up their roots, there are multitudes of people who have not. What do you say to encourage people to find out “who you are and where you came from?”
CW: It’s worth finding out because it will lift you and let you know that you’re not alone. Like this wonderful business [Brooklyn Stone Boutique] that’s here in Brooklyn; you’re not alone in setting up businesses. Your dreams, your inspirations – there’s power behind what you dream. And if you call on the spirits to lift you up, your ancestors, they’re not dead. They’re laying in wait for somebody to say, “Help me!” And they come rushing. I have been lifted up to the point where I am almost spooked by it!
Like this U.N. thing came out of nowhere. And I can just hear them saying, “Tell our story; we got your back. When everybody hates on you don’t even worry about it because we got you and we know you’re telling the truth. And you’re speaking empowerment so people can be inspired.” I wouldn’t have had the nerve to do that five years ago.
TL: Or to say it.
CW: Or to say it.
TL: How daunting has the process been?
CW: It is daunting because people are conditioned. They think you should stay in a certain place, that you should be a certain way. “Don’t make us uncomfortable.” Well, if me talking about my ancestors makes you uncomfortable, well then I think you’re just going to be uncomfortable because I’m never going to stop talking about it.
It doesn’t mean I don’t respect you, it doesn’t mean I don’t respect your culture. I respect all cultures – Irish, Italian, Jewish, whatever. I think there are amazing histories by all the people who’ve come here to make America great. But I don’t like that Africans have been pushed to the back like, “Oh yeah and they helped build this country for free and next.” No, no, no. We’re not going to be reduced to footnotes anymore.
TL: You being a Black female in the broadcasting industry, how do you think this knowledge that you have now would have helped – you obviously have some success – but how do you think this knowledge would have helped you along the way had you known these things when you started your career?
CW: See now it’s like a fire is lit under me and I’m 44 years old. How I wish this fire would have been lit when I was 24. See I was a little nervous, a little insecure. You don’t know. You don’t know! You think you’re in it alone. But the take home point, Tracee, is now I know I’m not alone. Now I know there’s an army of angels behind me, supporting me, pushing me with their power. And I’m like, “Okay, let’s go!”
TL: Before I leave you I want to talk a bit about your dad.
CW: Oh yeah.
TL: I read some really compelling things about your dad on your website. Tell me a little bit about him.
CW: My dad’s name was Clarence Wills. He was a very distinguished man in the military – a paratrooper. Almost 100 years after Sandy fought in the Civil War he walked up to an enlistment station and volunteered to fight during Vietnam. No idea. See that’s the part that gets me. He had no idea. Walked up to fight in the mighty United States Government with no reference point. This is what happens when you don’t know your history. So he’s thinking–
TL: He’s the first one.
CW: Right! He’s like, “Da, da, da, I’m the first in my family to sign up…” No you’re not. No you’re not! Someone did something extraordinary. So he fought during the Vietnam era. And after that was over he helped desegregate a firehouse in Manhattan – Engine 1.
TL: That’s big in New York.
CW: Yes, that’s very big. Engine 1 is right across from Madison Square Garden. And he put himself through college, had five children, married my mom.
When he got in his mid-30s he told everyone to kiss where the sun doesn’t shine. Can you imagine? But he was just like a lot of people who get in their mid-30s and think, “Why am I doing this? Why am I killing myself? What is this for?” It’s very real. He stopped going to church; he was a deacon in his own father’s church. And I, as his oldest daughter, was on the frontlines watching the unraveling of this great man. He joined a motorcycle club and just started sowing his oats. And me and my four little sisters and brothers were like, “What are you doing?!”
TL: But did he leave your family?
CW: I don’t ever want to unjustly make it seem like he abandoned us. He didn’t abandon us. But I will say he had one foot at home and one foot in the street. He did not come home every night. Absolutely not. He didn’t come home every week. But he would maybe come home every two weeks. He would be wherever he would be.
And then sadly when he was 38 with his motorcycle friends, he was on the Williamsburg Bridge – which is not far from here – and lost control of his motorcycle, got into a collision with a car, smashed face first. Killed instantly; never even knew what hit him.
And from that moment, Tracee, I buried my childhood with him. I was 13 years old; it was like “Bye-bye to happy childhood.” And then I said, “How did this happen?” This man who was putting himself through college, was a Mason, was a deacon, was all of these admirable things. What led him to throw it all away and act so recklessly with no regard for five children? And I have a brother who is autistic. We really needed him. And so, thankfully I would knock, knock, knock and the door has been opened. And I see now that my father was a man who had no sense of history; he thought he was in it all by himself. This is what happens.
TL: You think he was just tired?
CW: He got tired. Didn’t see a sense of legacy. All he saw behind him was a bunch of alcoholics. And when that’s your frame of reference you will throw your life away.
TL: Did he quit his job?
CW: No, he never quit. He was a fireman, and a National Guard and all these things ‘til the day he–
TL: And running the streets.
CW: And running the streets at night.
TL: With a motorcycle gang.
CW: (laughs) With a motorcycle gang, yes! And five little kids in back wondering, “Is daddy coming home tonight?”
TL: Do you remember the motorcycle gang’s name?
CW: It was the Newcomers Motorcycle Club. He kept a full photo diary. This is why the book is so– People when they read it they really love it because I tell the truth. I would love to paint my father as a prince. But I can’t. I forgive him for what he did. But I can’t; I gotta tell the truth. He had girlfriends; he paid more attention to these thugs than he did his children in the end.
But I chart his life with flashbacks of Sandy and Emma and I say, “Now you see. Had he known about Sandy and Emma…if he could have seen how a former slave stood by nine children in a one-room sharecropper’s shack surely he could have stayed with five children in a five-bedroom apartment with two baths. But this is what happens when you don’t know your history.
So that’s what the book is about.
TL: What about mom?
CW: My mom is a hero. I call my mother our “Modern-day Emma.” My mother had five children and after we buried our dad she took us all and said, “You are not gonna–“
You know what could have happened to us. I don’t even have to say. I gave a speech last week and I told the people, “My life could have gone either way. I think ya’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I could have become a prostitute and a crackhead or I could have become Cheryl Wills that’s on TV.” It was literally a roll of the dice cuz I didn’t have this kind of understanding when I was 13 years old looking at my father’s mutilated body in a casket. That’s the kind of thing that drives people to the crazy house to witness something like that as a child.
So my mom picked us all up and said, “Ya’ll are gonna continue; we are gonna carry on.” And we did with her grace and her strength. And we respected her. Because we respected her none of us ever went to jail. We made her proud.
TL: What’s next for you? You’re promoting the book. What’s next after that?
CW: The sky is the limit. One of the two big things I wanna do. Number one: I’m gonna find Emma’s Bible.
TL: I was gonna ask you about Emma’s Bible. You haven’t found it yet?
CW: And that’s my next book. I told a friend, “I’ll pay you any amount of money.” He’s an archivist; he finds ancient things. Not ancient, but you know the [Emma’s] Bible is 150 years old wherever it is. I told him, “You find that Bible and name your price.” I would pay thousands for it.
The second thing I’m going to do, with God as my help, is build a college in Haywood, Tennessee to avenge the government-imposed illiteracy of my great great great grandparents. Don’t ask me how I’m going to do it. But with their power behind me I believe I can do anything and I am somehow going to get the money and I’ma build a college right there near their unmarked graves. And that’s what you call reparations!
TL: That’s right.
CW: That’s reparations. I don’t need nobody to cut me no check. I will take care of this myself. I will make them proud and I’m gonna name it “Sandy and Emma College.” Don’t know how, but I’m telling you one day I know it’s gonna be done.
CW: And that’s what faith is. And that’s what they taught me. That’s what faith is – the belief in the unseen. I know I’m not in this by myself anymore. You understand? So I can set all kinds of goals. Just wait and watch things unfold. Like this U.N. thing. Everybody at my job is like, (gives an incredulous look). They don’t know what to say. They’re like, “The General Assembly or you’re gonna be in the side conference room?” And I’m like, “The General Assembly!” And they’re shocked! They don’t know what to say. Because first of all people are conditioned. “Slaves? How much is that gonna sell?” And I’m like, “Okay, we’ll see.”
I believe in it heart and soul. And when you believe in your project, that gives an energy and a vibration where the world must respect you. You can’t take their side and say, (mocking self-deprecation) ,“Oh yeah well it is about slaves.” No, you have to believe in it heart and soul. And when you believe in your own thing, the world will believe in it too. And that’s exactly what’s happening. I’ve been in Barnes and Noble, Borders; all kinds of things have opened up because I believe in it.
TL: Give me one word that describes “Cheryl Wills.” One word.
TL: I wish you so much success. This book sounds amazing; it’s going to inspire multitudes of people. I really feel that.
CW: Thank you, Tracee.
No, thank you Cheryl. Thank you for bravely calling upon the spirits of your ancestors and candidly sharing bits of your life with the world. Because of you many people of all races and colors will proudly step into the light.
I was so moved by Cheryl, that I decided to witness her full book presentation at St. Philip’s Christian Church Sunday morning. For most of the “performance” I sat mesmerized, teary-eyed and filled with the spirit.
Soloist Robin Campos and The Ensemble of Praise set the stage with a gut-wrenching version of, “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” If you’ve spent any time in the South you know what this song can do. As soon as Robin bellowed the first note I knew I was in trouble! When she finished bringing the house down, Cheryl grabbed the mic and proceeded to tell Sandy’s story – her story – our story.
I have definitely been changed.
Cheryl will be on a national book tour for the remainder of the year. You must experience her full book presentation in person. If you’re in the New York area, she’ll be at St. Luke’s AME Church in Harlem on April 10. Don’t miss this incredible lesson in history, humility and resounding faith. Consult her website for more upcoming dates in cities around the country. And of course you can purchase Die Free: A Heroic Family History today!
I would be remiss in not sending a shout out to the St. Philip’s family. What lovely people – Cordell Robinson, Pastor NaRon Tillman, Deaconess Victoria Dickerson and Photographer Monique Wise, who graciously allowed me to use her photos. Thanks Monique!
Until next time, do something radically fabulous like Cheryl…