“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.”