Tag Archives: NY1

Die Free

“I could have become a prostitute and a crackhead or I could have become Cheryl Wills that’s on TV.”

Cheryl Wills

Actor LeVar Burton as "Kunta Kinte"

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

Author Alex Haley - Photo Credit: Mickey Adair (1984)

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?”

United States Colored Troops - USCT

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

Bill of Sale – 1769

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.”

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Hip. Cool. Free.

There are clear advantages to living in a hip, cool neighborhood – there is always something hip and cool to do.  Tuesday night I took full advantage of the coolness when I dropped by the super cute Brooklyn Stone Boutique in Fort Greene, Brooklyn for NY1 Anchor Cheryl Wills’ booksigning soiree.   First let’s talk about the where. Did I say super cute?!  Opened last September, Brooklyn Stone Boutique features hot, trendy, fashions that are mostly imported from the UK and Australia.

Boutique Owner Regina Stone & Tracee Loran

Wearing MusicaWear Rockstar Zippered Shirt & Cropped Jacket from Brooklyn Stone Boutique

Store owner Regina Stone never orders more than seven pieces of any single clothing item and typically carries a mere three. And many of the super baaad pumps are custom made (I’m in love with the black & white numbers with the red bow accent on the heel), which means often only one pair of specialty

footwear is available.  So what’s the big deal about that, Tracee? The chances of attending a party and spotting 3 chix wearing your “limited edition” dress are very low.  Don’t you hate when that happens?  You spend the evening trying to pretend like you don’t see each other or worst yet, you have to leave early due to an “emergency.” Very few items at BSB are over $200 & you can find many things for under a hundred bucks, so you can look like brand new money without spending a lot of it. Needless to say  Brooklyn Stone Boutique is definitely the place to get your fashion fix on. And it’s the new hot spot for radically fabulous events.

News Anchor/Author Cheryl Wills

In walks Award-winning NY1 Anchor Cheryl Wills who held a booksigning for her new powerful tomeDie Free: A Heroic Family History, which chronicles the story of Wills’ great great great grandfather Sandy Wills, a runaway slave and fearless Civil War veteran. Die Free also explores the life of Wills’ dad, Clarence Douglas Wills, the first black firefighter to desegregate Engine 1 Ladder 24 in New York City.  He tragically died in a motorcycle accident on the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn at the tender age of 38, and according to Cheryl, lived a very enigmatic & reckless life during his last few years on this planet.

Tracee Loran & Cheryl Wills

Cheryl is one of the most dynamic people I’ve met in New York City. Hands down! We had an engaging conversation about history, slavery, and knowing your roots.  The full interview will be available next week, but here’s a juicy sample:

I asked Cheryl what was the impetus, the one event that led her to write Die Free.  This excerpt is extracted from her response.

CW: 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.


Yes, Cheryl is that honest and forthright; she’s a powerful speaker with an inspiring ball of fire in her belly ignited by learning the truth about her family.  You’ll get the full version next week; believe me regardless of race, creed, or religious affiliation you will be moved by her story. If you just can’t wait to hear it from me, you can stop by St. Philips Church in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn this Sunday, March 20 at 11:00 am. Cheryl’s reading excerpts from Die Free: A Heroic Family History.  This won’t be an ordinary book-reading as she’ll be accompanied by a full gospel choir.  I can’t wait! (Click on flyer for more details.)


MUA Karen Swaby & Tracee Loran

You know I never pull off these events solo; beside every socialite is a talented crew of artists. Since its Woman’s History Month its befitting that the ladies represented. Fresh off of a snazzy fashion spectacular for PR Whiz Lawrence Blake Harvey, Makeup Artist Karen Swaby carved out some time to paint beautiful hues on my face.  Dame Swaby has skills because she convinced me to go with smoky eyes for a more edgy look and pink lips. Yes, pink lips!  Designer Raquel Alfred of MusicaWear provided me with her really adorable signature item – the RockStar Zippered T-Shirt.  News flash – it’s  pink! In the immortal words of Whitney Houston, me and pink “are not friends!” These sly foxes must have slipped a mickey in my Shirley Temple! 😉

Documenting the event was gifted Photographer Tamara Edme of Urban Exposure Images. Miss Tamara is all about unique angles and interesting shots. She often uses graffiti’d walls & other urban backdrops to capture subjects in their purest, most uninhibited form. Love it!

This event was definitely fun and enlightening. I look forward to sharing the full Cheryl Wills interview & reports of what I hear is an incredible book-reading presentation.

Time is running out on the Radically Fabulous My PeepStakes; don’t forget to enter to win a prize package worth $125!  It is the easiest open book quiz you’ll ever take! 🙂

Until the next time, stay radically fabulous….

Anchor/Author Cheryl Wills & Sports Agent Martin Gover

Tracee Loran & Sports Agent Martin Gover

Tracee Loran & Cheryl Wills Share a Laugh

Martin Gover & McArthur St. Juste

McArthur St. Juste & Cheryl Wills


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